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In blow to hopes for a Brexit deal, a leaked British plan is rejected

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived at the Manchester Central convention complex on Tuesday to be interviewed by the press ahead of the third day of the annual Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived at the Manchester Central convention complex on Tuesday to be interviewed by the press ahead of the third day of the annual Conservative Party conference in Manchester.Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

MANCHESTER, England — With time running out for a deal on Brexit, the Irish government and European Union officials have rejected the latest British thinking on how to resolve an impasse over the Irish border, a serious setback to prospects for a breakthrough.

Progress on the border issue is urgent if Britain is to agree with the European Union on the terms of its withdrawal, which is scheduled to take effect at the end of the month. Leaving without an agreement, specialists warn, would mean a disorderly, possibly chaotic, and damaging rupture.

The latest British plan, a set of informal proposals given to European negotiators, would create customs sites or zones to check goods on both sides of the border, and place tracking devices on trucks to monitor their movements. Parts of the plan were leaked and made public Monday night by Irish broadcaster RTE.

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The idea of custom check zones was described in a post on Twitter as a “nonstarter” by Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney.

European officials have said that they have not yet received any formal proposals from the British government, but they have been making it clear that the leaked plan would be unacceptable. The reactions suggested that the two sides were nowhere near an agreement on the thorny issue with the deadline looming large.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain confirmed Tuesday that he would present a formal plan “fairly shortly.” A summit meeting of EU leaders is scheduled for Oct. 17-18 — a gathering that many see as the last chance of striking a deal.

Speaking to the BBC, Johnson said that some of the reporting about his plan was “not quite right,” but he did not dispute the overall strategy: Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, a part of the European Union, would be in separate trading and customs systems, requiring checks on many goods that cross the border.

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The prime minister dismissed as unacceptable the alternative of having most of the United Kingdom operate under one system, while Northern Ireland remains tied to a different set of rules.

“In the end, a sovereign, united country must have a single customs territory,” he said. “When the UK withdraws from the EU, that must be the state of affairs that we have,” he added, noting that Britain and the European Union were approaching “the critical moment of choice about how we proceed.”

Some progress has been made. In discussions with the European Union, Johnson has already accepted that Northern Ireland could remain within the EU’s trade umbrella for agricultural and some food products, but he has refused to make the same concession for other goods.

Currently, Ireland and the United Kingdom are both members of the European Union, operating under the same tariff rules and product standards, so there is no need to check goods crossing the border.

Johnson’s comments suggested that the checking sites he proposes would not need to be near the border. But the idea of physical checks on goods, even at locations away from the frontier, is likely to breach one of the EU’s negotiating red lines.

For Ireland, the imposition of any form of border checks is sensitive because removing the physical infrastructure separating the two countries was a central element of the peace process that unfolded in the 1990s. And without the support of Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, the European Union is unlikely to agree to any new deal.

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Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, negotiated an agreement with Brussels that would have kept the whole of the United Kingdom under Europe’s trade rules until a technological solution could be found to check trucks without stopping them. That arrangement, known as the Irish backstop, was reviled by hard-line Brexit supporters — one of the reasons Parliament rejected May’s plan three times.

In a statement, Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, dismissed the latest British plans as “utterly unworkable.”

“They would place an enormous administrative burden on businesses and rely on technology that does not yet exist,” he added.