There are a number of questions that need to be answered before the UK formally leaves the European Union on 31 October. We take a look at the key issues facing the Prime Minister ahead of ‘B-Day’.
Q What are the questions which need to be resolved?
A Inevitably, it comes down to the Northern Ireland backstop - the insurance policy intended to guarantee there is no return of a hard border in Ireland. Under the Withdrawal Agreement, if at the end of the transition period after Britain leaves the EU there is no long-term trade agreement with Brussels in place, the UK would effectively remain part of the EU customs union. Boris Johnson, however, says this is unacceptable as it could potentially leave Britain tied to EU customs arrangements, leaving it unable to strike trade deals with other countries. It would also mean the UK would remain subject to EU regulations over which it would have no say.
Q What is Mr Johnson’s alternative?
A One part of the package is for an all-Ireland regime for agri-food products, avoiding the need for checks at the border. At the same time, Mr Johnson is adamant that the UK – including Northern Ireland– is leaving the customs union, so the second part would involve “de-dramatising” the controls for other goods that would be required.
Q How would they do that?
A The Irish broadcaster RTE reported that British officials have suggested the checks could be carried out at a series of “customs clearance centres” situated between five and ten miles back from the border on either side. Mr Johnson has insisted that is not the UK plan - but has yet to say what exactly he is proposing.
Q What has been the reaction of the EU?
A So far, pretty dismissive. Irish deputy premier Simon Coveney rejected the idea of customs posts away from the border as a “non-starter”. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has repeatedly complained that he has yet to see any “workable and legally operative” proposals from the UK side.
Q How long have they got to get a deal?
A Under the terms of the Benn Act, if there is no deal by 19 October the Prime Minister is required to go back to Brussels to ask for a further extension to Britain’s withdrawal date. While Mr Johnson has said that he will abide by the law, he has also been adamant that Britain is leaving on 31 October come what may. How, in the absence of a deal, he could meet both commitments he has yet to explain.
Q What happens if they cannot get a deal?
A The Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested government lawyers have been looking at the way EU law – which overrides domestic legislation – “interacts” with the Benn Act, but admits he cannot see any “easy and obvious loophole”. There has been speculation that Mr Johnson could try to override the Benn Act. However, legal experts believe the suggestions floated so far are all non-runners. So watch this space.