Brexit: How far apart are the UK and EU on Boris Johnson's plans

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Five days have passed since Boris Johnson’s big move to break the Brexit impasse - and there is little sign that his new withdrawal blueprint is making any headway.

The inital optimism in London - based on polite language in Brussels when the Prime Minister's proposals were unveiled - has rapidly faded.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with French president Emmanuel Macron

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with French president Emmanuel Macron

The UK Government had hoped to be in intensive negotiations this week, working on finalising the fine detail of Britain’s exit plans.

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Instead Mr Johnson is struggling just to keep them alive while the European Union's language appears to be hardening.

The Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne has said: “It seems Mr Johnson only now understands what a big mess this is and he’s having a hard time making a suggestion that will get him out of it.”

What are the key issues?

Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson share a joke during the UK Prime Minister's visit to Paris

Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson share a joke during the UK Prime Minister's visit to Paris

The two main problems centre on Northern Ireland’s future status after Brexit has taken place and how its border with the Republic can remain open once it becomes an external frontier with the European Union.

Mr Johnson has suggested the EU’s plan for a backstop, the insurance policy designed to avert the imposition of a hard border, be replaced by keeping Northern Ireland in the single market for all products, but taking it out of EU customs territory.

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Northern Ireland’s proposed departure from the European customs union deeply worries Brussels.

It fears that the move will - despite Mr Johnson’s denials - create some kind of customs border between the UK and EU, raising fears the frontier could become a smugglers’ route into the bloc.

The EU also echoes Dublin’s concerns that the plan could undermine the Good Friday Agreement, which effectively dissolved the border, and be exploited by terrorist groups.

Secondly, Mr Johnson has suggested that the Stormont assembly should be given a vote next summer and every four years after that on whether to accept the single market plan.

The EU and Dublin object that such a proposal would give the Tories’ partners in Westminster, the Democratic Unionist Party, an effective veto on these arrangements, a level of uncertainty and instability that is anathema to Brussels.

In addition, the Stormont assembly has not sat for nearly three years following a bitter fall-out between the DUP and Sinn Fein, and there is little sign of it being reconvened in the near future.

What next?

David Frost, the Prime Minister's chief Brexit negotiator, met his opposite number in Brussels on Monday, while Steve Barclay, the Brexit secretary, held talks in the Hague with the Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok.

Mr Johnson spoke over the weekend with leaders including French president Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Downing Street expects him to put in phone calls to other leaders in the next 48 hours, but has no immediate plans for him to visit European capitals to explain his plans.

There is no sense the sides are closing in on a deal.

Will the EU make a move?

Downing Street insists the ball is now in the Brussels court, protesting the EU has not made the slightest move over the past five days.

One scenario is that Brussels is waiting until the last feasible moment for maximum impact to make a counter-offer. The other explanation is that it is consistently sticking to its red lines as it is determined above all else to protect the integrity of its single market.

How much time is left?

In short, almost none as the EU leaders’ summit takes place on 17-18 October. Mr Macron has said the EU would want to “evaluate by the end of the week if a deal is possible”, leaving just days to achieve an unlikely breakthrough.

The government privately accepts this as a realistic deadline as in practice the agenda - and the paperwork - for Brussels meetings needs to be finalised the weekend before the summit.