British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposed Brexit deal with the European Union has been dealt a blow by a key committee in the European Parliament, which said the plan wasn’t remotely workable.
In a statement Thursday, the Parliament’s Brexit steering group said Mr. Johnson’s proposals do not “represent a basis for an agreement to which the European Parliament could give consent,” adding that they "do not match even remotely what was agreed as a sufficient compromise.”
The European Parliament must approve any Brexit deal, and the committee’s report is a setback for Mr. Johnson, who also faced criticism Thursday from Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and several business groups in Northern Ireland. With just weeks before Britain is set to leave the EU, on Oct. 31, Mr. Johnson must either negotiate changes to his proposals or prepare to pull the country out without a deal. He has insisted he won’t extend the deadline – despite a new law requiring him to do so if he can’t get a deal by Oct. 19.
The Prime Minister hoped his plan would resolve the thorny issue of the Irish backstop, a safety net favoured by the EU and Ireland as a way of keeping the Irish border open after Brexit. Under the backstop, Northern Ireland would remain aligned to EU regulations and stay inside the bloc’s customs union along with the rest of the United Kingdom. The provisions would ensure that goods move freely between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and would stay in place until the EU and U.K. sign a trade deal.
Mr. Johnson wants the U.K. out of the customs union because it prevents member states from setting their own external tariffs or negotiating trade deals. Under his plan, Northern Ireland would remain tied to EU regulations for agricultural goods and product standards, but would leave the customs union along with the rest of the country. Customs checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Ireland would be done electronically or remotely. And goods moving into Northern Ireland from Britain would be checked to ensure they comply with EU regulations. Mr. Johnson also plans to give Northern Ireland’s legislature the power to consent to the arrangement every four years.
Mr. Varadkar said Mr. Johnson’s proposals “fall short in a number of aspects," especially the customs checks that would serve as border controls. “Our objective is very clear: We don’t want to see any customs posts between north and south, nor do we want to see any tariffs or restrictions on trade between north and south,” he told reporters.
He also criticized the consent role for Northern Ireland’s Parliament. The legislature has been shut down for almost three years because of a dispute between the two main political parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein. “No party – not my party, not Sinn Fein, not the DUP – should be in the position to veto what will be the will of the majority in Northern Ireland and Ireland,” he said.
Northern Ireland’s business groups have been even more critical. “All the promises of unfettered access have been abandoned,” said Tina McKenzie, the head of the Federation of Small Businesses for Northern Ireland. The province “is a small-business economy, and this is a death knell for some of those businesses.”
Glyn Roberts, the head of Retail NI, said the plan would create two borders and have “huge negative impacts” on businesses.
Mr. Johnson vowed to press ahead, but indicated a willingness to negotiate. The proposals should “provide the basis for rapid negotiations towards a solution in the short time that remains,” he told the House of Commons Thursday. "I believe this is our chance and their chance to get a deal.”
There were signs that many MPs welcomed the plan, and it has won the backing of the DUP and several hard Brexit backers among Mr. Johnson’s fellow Conservatives who have been instrumental in thwarting previous Brexit deals. But MPs won’t get a say on Mr. Johnson’s plan until the EU agrees to it.
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