The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union on 31 October 2019. We want to leave with a deal. One of the most important elements of this deal will be the agreement of a new Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland in place of the previous Protocol (known as the backstop) which this Government is committed to replacing.
Since then, the Government has pursued discussions with the European Union on alternatives to the backstop enthusiastically and constructively, and we have made good progress.
The Government is now putting forward a formal proposal to the European Commission, setting out the changes we are seeking to the Withdrawal Agreement. This represents a clear offer from the UK which we will ask the EU to engage with, enabling us to move towards a deal.
First, this proposal is based above all on our commitment to find solutions which are compatible with the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, the fundamental basis for governance in Northern Ireland.
Second, this proposal confirms our commitment to long-standing areas of UK / Ireland collaboration, including those provided for in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, but also others, in some cases predating the European Union: the Common Travel Area; the rights of all those living in Northern Ireland; and North / South cooperation.
Third, this proposal provides for the potential creation of an all-island regulatory zone on the island of Ireland, covering all goods including agrifood and eliminating all regulatory checks for trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Fourth, and unlike the backstop, this regulatory zone must depend on the consent of those affected by it. This is essential to the acceptability of arrangements under which part of the UK accepts the rules of a different political entity: it is fundamental to democracy. The Government therefore proposes that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly should have the opportunity to endorse these arrangements before they enter into force (that is, during the transition period, and every four years afterwards). If consent is not secured, the arrangements will lapse. The same should apply to the Single Electricity Market, which raises the same principles.
Fifth, this proposal ensures that Northern Ireland will be fully part of the UK customs territory, not the EU customs territory, after the end of the transition period. It has always been a fundamental point for this Government that the UK will leave the EU customs union at the end of the transition period, since control of trade policy is fundamental to this country’s future prosperity.
This is entirely compatible with maintaining an open border in Northern Ireland. Goods trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland makes up a little over 1% of UK-EU total trade in goods. Any risks arising will be manageable in both the EU single market and the UK market, particularly as all third country imports will continue to be controlled by the EU and UK customs authorities. We are proposing that all customs processes needed to ensure compliance with the UK and EU customs regimes should take place on a decentralised basis, with paperwork conducted electronically as goods move between the two countries, and with the very small number of physical checks needed conducted at traders’ premises or other points on the supply chain. All this must be coupled with a firm commitment (by both parties) never to conduct checks at the border in future.
Finally, in order to support Northern Ireland through this transition, and in collaboration with others with an interest, this Government proposes a New Deal for Northern Ireland, with appropriate commitments to help boost economic growth and Northern Ireland’s competitiveness, and to support infrastructure projects, particularly with a cross-border focus.
Taken together, these proposals respect the decision taken by the people of the UK to leave the EU, while dealing pragmatically with that decision’s consequences in Northern Ireland and in Ireland. In particular:
● They provide for continued regulatory alignment across the whole island of Ireland after the end of the transition period, for as long as the people of Northern Ireland agree to that.
● They mean that EU rules cannot be maintained indefinitely if they are not wanted – correcting a key defect of the backstop arrangements.
● They provide for a meaningful Brexit in which UK trade policy is fully under UK control from the start.
● They ensure that the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland will remain open, enabling the huge gains of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement to be protected.
The Government believes that these proposals can provide the basis for rapid negotiations towards a final Withdrawal Agreement. In parallel, we will be negotiating a revised Political Declaration which reflects this Government’s ultimate goal of a future relationship with the EU that has a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement at its heart. Together, these will allow us to reach agreement with the EU under Article 50, and leave the EU with a deal that both respects the referendum result and provides a strong platform for our future relationship.
I will be depositing a copy of the following papers in the libraries of both Houses: i) Letter from the Prime Minister to Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission and; ii) Explanatory note on UK proposals for an amended Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. These will also be made available on gov.uk.