The UK proposal to replace the controversial backstop, presented to the EU on Wednesday, would mean customs checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic as well as a regulatory control border down the Irish Sea.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker warned the prime minister that there were “problematic points” in his offer, while the head of the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group Guy Verhofstadt said it was “absolutely not positive” and did not provide the necessary safeguards for Ireland.
But Mr Juncker also welcomed “positive advances” in areas such as regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic and controls on goods coming in from mainland Britain. In a phone call with Mr Johnson, he said the commission would examine the UK’s legal text “objectively, and in light of our well-known criteria”.
Mr Johnson told the president that his plan was a “fair and reasonable compromise” and warned that if the two sides could not reach agreement it would represent “a failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible”.
Downing Street believes it will know by Saturday whether there is any chance of securing a deal for an orderly Brexit. If there is not, Mr Johnson will be confronted with the choice of going ahead with his “do or die” pledge to crash out of the EU without a deal on 31 October or asking Brussels for further delay.
The prime minister discussed the plans in phone calls with German chancellor Angela Merkel and Irish premier Leo Varadkar, and will chair a special cabinet meeting on Thursday ahead of a statement to the Commons by either Mr Johnson or Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay.
Mr Varadkar, whose consent will be essential to any deal, said the proposals “do not fully meet the objectives of the backstop” but promised to study them further before speaking to Mr Johnson next week.
The UK’s “final offer” was unveiled hours after Johnson’s debut speech as leader to the Conservative conference, in which he blasted parliament for refusing to deliver EU exit and won loud cheers with his declaration that “we can, we must and we will … get Brexit done”.
“If parliament were a reality TV show, the whole lot of us would have been voted out of the jungle by now,” he said. “And the sad truth is that voters have more say over I’m A Celebrity than they do over this House of Commons, which refuses to deliver Brexit, refuses to do anything constructive and refuses to have an election.”
He repeatedly stressed the compromises the UK was making in accepting single market regulations in Northern Ireland and controls on goods crossing the Irish Sea, in what appeared to be an attempt to ensure that any failure to reach a deal is blamed on Brussels intransigence.
The offer set out plans for Northern Ireland to remain under EU regulations in an all-island zone not only for agriculture and food products but also manufactured goods. A “Stormont lock” gives the assembly and executive in Belfast powers to pull out in 2025, but means the plan is dependent on the suspended institutions being restored by June next year.
Both sides would have to commit to avoiding checkpoints on the border under Mr Johnson’s proposals. But there would be customs checks on all goods travelling between the Republic and the North – except for some exempted small traders – carried out either electronically or through physical examinations in traders’ premises or in the supply chain.
A “New Deal for Northern Ireland” will funnel funds towards infrastructure and business investment in the province, on top of the £1bn supplied as a result of the DUP’s 2017 deal to prop up Theresa May’s government.
The pound tumbled during the day amid jitters over Mr Johnson’s Brexit plan.
And trade group Manufacturing Northern Ireland said the proposal was “worse than no deal for Northern Ireland businesses”.
Tariffs on north-south trade would mean the crucial farming and agrifood sector would be “decimated”, while businesses near the border would be cut off from their customers and supply chains, said the group.
The Johnson proposals were welcomed by the Democratic Unionist Party as “a basis for the EU to continue in a serious and sustained engagement with the UK”. The 10 DUP MPs are vital to the prime minister’s slim hopes of getting a majority in the Commons behind his plans.
But Ulster Unionists described the proposals as “deeply concerning” and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said they were “neither viable nor acceptable”.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn denounced the plan as “worse than Theresa May’s”, warning it would take the UK into “a regime of deregulation and undercutting” and undermine the Good Friday Agreement.
And Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake said: “These proposals just confirm what we already know – Boris Johnson has no viable alternative to the backstop.
“It is ludicrous to think that somehow Boris Johnson believes the answer to ensuring no Irish border is to create two.”
In a four-page letter to Mr Juncker, Mr Johnson described his plan as a “fair and reasonable compromise” which could provide the basis for “rapid negotiations towards a solution” so the UK can leave in an orderly way on Halloween.
“The government wants to get a deal, as I am sure we all do. If we cannot get one, it would represent a failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible,” he told Mr Juncker. “Our predecessors have tackled harder problems: we can surely solve this one.”
And he wrote: “Both sides now need to consider whether there is sufficient willingness to compromise and move beyond existing positions to get us to an agreement in time. We are ready to do that, and this letter sets out what I regard as a reasonable compromise: the broad landing zone in which I believe a deal can begin to take shape.”
Labour MP Mary Creagh, a prominent supporter of the People’s Vote campaign for a second EU referendum, said Johnson’s proposed deal “breaks every promise he made to people in the referendum campaign and the solemn promises we made to the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the Good Friday Agreement”.
In place of the “frictionless” trade promised by Vote Leave in 2016, Mr Johnson was offering “customs barriers in Ireland and at ports around the UK”, she said.
She added that the prime minister’s rejection of a level playing field on regulation would make the UK “the bargain basement of Europe, with the worst paid workers relying on minimum wage laws, with the lowest taxes for the wealthy, and a return to being the dirty man of Europe – where polluters from home and abroad can dump their waste”.