(CN) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday issued what his government called a “final offer” to the European Union on Brexit, but his proposal allowing Northern Ireland to break away from EU rules was frostily received by his European counterparts and set the stage for continued uncertainty.
In a speech to the Conservative Party conference Wednesday, Johnson repeated his promise to lead the United Kingdom out of the EU with or without a deal on Oct. 31. Behind him, the words “Get Brexit Done” were emblazoned across the stage.
Still, it remains likely Johnson's bid to leave the EU even without a deal will be blocked by Parliament and that the Brexit impasse will lead to new elections, which Johnson welcomes because he does not command a majority in the House of Commons.
His new proposal would allow Northern Ireland's government to decide whether to stay aligned with the EU or break away from the bloc.
Irish and EU politicians immediately called Johnson's offer unworkable and warned it would undermine the Good Friday Agreement, a 1998 peace accord that ended sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland and removed border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Today, the border is open and free of checks because the U.K. and Ireland are both in the EU and adhere to the same customs regime and regulations, but Brexit threatens to make a border with customs checks necessary again.
To avoid the return of a border in Ireland, the EU and former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May struck a deal that kept Northern Ireland aligned to EU customs and rules indefinitely. But pro-Brexit Tories and their Northern Irish allies in Parliament rejected that arrangement, saying it threatened to force all of the U.K. to stay tied too closely to the EU.
May was forced to resign in June, and Tories then chose Johnson to become prime minister, in large part because they saw him forcefully making the case that the U.K. will leave the EU even if it means doing so without a deal.
Johnson, an ardent backer of Brexit but a highly divisive figure, used his speech at the Conservative conference in Manchester to paint a picture of Britain enjoying a brighter future outside of the EU than in it. Britain, though, is deeply divided over Brexit with many fearing the U.K. will suffer economically and politically by exiting the EU.
“Let’s get it done because of the opportunities that Brexit will bring, not just to take back control of our money and our borders and our laws,” Johnson said. “To regulate differently and better, and to take our place as a proud and independent global campaigner for free trade.”
Johnson's political opponents see holding another referendum on EU membership as the best way to resolve the Brexit impasse, but Johnson and many Tories say doing that would be undemocratic because a majority of voters in the 2016 referendum favored leaving the EU.
But Johnson's pledge to “get Brexit done” by Oct. 31 faces major political and legal challenges.
Most significantly, Parliament has passed legislation to block him from taking the U.K. out of the EU without a deal. Johnson's government is looking at ways it can bypass Parliament should that become necessary. His continued pledge to take the U.K. out of the EU even without a deal has led to tensions running very high in Parliament and across the U.K.
He took aim at Parliament and his political opponents in his speech, making jokes about Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and saying he ought to be sent “into orbit where he belongs.”
“If Parliament were a reality TV show, the whole lot of us would have been voted out of the jungle by now,” he said at one point.
For now, Johnson and the EU say they want to strike an agreement to prevent a no-deal Brexit. The two sides are expected to continue negotiating a deal until Oct. 17-18, when European leaders are due to meet and discuss Brexit.
On Wednesday, Johnson's government issued proposals on how to overcome the thorny issue of Northern Ireland. The details of those proposals were expected to be carefully examined Wednesday by European officials. Government officials described the proposal as a "final offer," though Johnson did not use those words in his speech.
The details were not immediately made public, but British and Irish media revealed parts of the proposals leaked to the press.
Under Johnson's plan, according to media reports, the U.K. as a whole would remain in the EU until the end of 2021. After that, Northern Ireland would follow the EU's single market rules for industrial goods, agriculture and food products and live animals until 2025, according to media reports.
Northern Ireland would leave the EU customs union along with the rest of the U.K. Then in 2025, Northern Ireland's elected assembly would vote on whether the region should leave the EU's regulatory sphere.
Johnson called his proposals “constructive and reasonable” and said they required “compromise for both sides.”
In his speech, he said the U.K. would not impose border checks in Northern Ireland and that his government would “respect the peace process and the Good Friday agreement.”
But politicians in Europe saw Johnson's proposals as a ploy.
Philippe Lamberts, a leader in the European Parliament and member of its Brexit steering committee, said Johnson's offer was part of an effort to put the blame on the EU if the U.K. crashes out of the bloc without a deal.
“My sense, but it is only my guess, is that what he is seeking is a no-deal Brexit, but with the ability of putting the blame on the EU,” Lamberts said on Sky News television. “He doesn’t seem like a person who genuinely seeks a deal.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)