MANCHESTER, England — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed today that Britain will make firm proposals for a new divorce deal with the European Union within days, saying “this is the moment when the rubber hits the road.”
Britain is due to leave the 28-nation bloc at the end of this month, and EU leaders are growing impatient with the U.K.’s failure to set out detailed plans for maintaining an open border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland — the key sticking point to a deal.
Johnson said details would be disclosed “very soon.” The U.K. plans to send them to Brussels within days after the governing Conservative Party conference ends Wednesday in Manchester, northwest England.
Johnson says Britain will leave the EU on the scheduled Oct. 31 date with or without a deal. A Brexit agreement between the EU and his predecessor, Theresa May, was rejected three times by the U.K. Parliament, largely because of opposition to the “backstop,” an insurance policy designed to ensure there is no return to customs posts or other infrastructure on the Irish border.
An open border underpins both the local economy and Northern Ireland’s peace process.
British Brexit supporters oppose the backstop because it would keep the U.K. tightly bound to EU trade rules in order to avoid customs checks — limiting the country’s ability to strike new trade deals around the world.
“There is no point in doing Brexit if you stay locked in the (EU) customs union and locked in the single market with no say,” Johnson told the BBC.
He didn’t say what Britain’s proposed alternative is. So far the U.K. has floated the idea of a common area for livestock and agricultural products, plus largely untested “technological solutions.” The EU says that is inadequate.
Ireland’s deputy prime minister also rejected an idea raised in preliminary U.K. proposals for customs posts 5 to 10 miles away from the border. Simon Coveney called the idea a “non-starter” and tweeted: “Time the EU had a serious proposal from the UK Govt if a #Brexit deal is to be achievable in October. NI and IRE deserves better!”
Johnson said the idea was not going to be included.
“That’s not what we’re proposing at all,” he said — but added that it was a “reality” that some checks would be needed to create a “single customs territory” for the U.K.
Johnson insists he wants to strike a deal with the EU to replace May’s rejected Brexit agreement. He also says the U.K. can handle any bumps that come from tumbling out of the bloc without a deal, which would mean the instant imposition of customs checks and other barriers between Britain and the EU, its biggest trading partner.
But the U.K. government and businesses say the disruptions would be substantial.
Trade Minister George Freeman told lawmakers at the Conservative conference that “if we leave without a deal, it’s going to be very bumpy.” He said the flow of trade across the Channel between the English port of Dover and the French port of Calais — the U.K.’s most important trade route — could be cut in half as customs and vehicle checks were introduced.
At the annual conference, Johnson is attempting to energize his party with all the bold policies he says the government will deliver once the U.K. manages to “Get Brexit Done“ — from more money for police, roads and housing to a big hike in the minimum wage.
The policies, which break with a decade of deficit-slashing austerity by Johnson’s Conservative predecessors, are also designed to appeal to voters in a national election that looks likely to be called within weeks.
But he is dogged by allegations that he handed out perks to a female friend’s business while he was mayor of London and groped the thigh of a female journalist at a lunch two decades ago. He denies impropriety in both cases.
Johnson is popular with many Conservative members, who welcome his energy and optimism after three years of grinding Brexit talks under May. Some, though, have qualms about his personal conduct and his divisive tactics, which include using words like “surrender“ and “betrayal” about opponents of Brexit.
But Johnson has shrugged off suggestions that his strong language could incite violence and suggested the personal allegations against him were motivated by people who wanted to “frustrate Brexit.”
Now, despite tensions over Brexit, he is trying to convince voters that he still can be a unifying figure.
“The old generous-hearted, loving mayor of London — that person has not gone away,” Johnson told the BBC. “But we are in a position where the only way we can take this country forward and unite our country again is to get Brexit done.”