U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the EU that a Brexit deal can still be approved by U.K. lawmakers if Brussels agrees to scrapping the most contentious part of the Withdrawal Agreement to do with the future of the Irish border with Northern Ireland.
In a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk late Monday, Johnson said the so-called Irish "backstop" – the most controversial part of the existing Brexit deal to do with maintaining a seamless border on the island of Ireland– was "unviable" and must be removed.
If the backstop plan was removed from the Brexit deal, Johnson hinted that the agreement could still be approved by a majority of the U.K. Parliament before an October 31 deadline for the U.K. to leave the bloc.
Tusk responded on Twitter on Tuesday morning, reiterating the EU's position that the backstop is an insurance policy to avoid a hard border "unless and until an alternative is found." He also criticized critics of the plan, saying they had not proposed "realistic" alternative solutions.
Parliament has already rejected the current deal, negotiated by former Prime Minister Theresa May with the EU, three times.
"Time is very short. But the U.K. is ready to move quickly, and given the degree of common ground already, I hope that the EU will be ready to do likewise. I am equally confident that our Parliament would be able to act rapidly if we were able to reach a satisfactory agreement which did not contain the 'backstop'," Johnson told Tusk on Monday.
Johnson's letter comes amid a flurry of Brexit-related activity this week. The prime minister is travelling to the continent this week to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday and French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday.
The "backstop" is seen as a way to keep the porous border between Ireland and Northern Ireland (which is a part of the U.K.) open in the event that the U.K. and EU either fail to agree a future trade deal at the end of a 21-month transition period, envisaged as part of a Brexit deal.
It's controversial with pro-Brexit lawmakers as it would mean that the U.K. essentially has to remain in a single customs territory (like the existing customs union) with the EU, potentially for an indefinite amount of time. Northern Ireland would also be subject to some of the EU's single market rules.
Brexiteers fear that the backstop would prevent the U.K. striking trade deals with other nations after Brexit. Meanwhile the EU, and Ireland in particular, say the backstop is essential for maintaining the free movement of goods, services and people and to the peace agreement there.
However, post Brexit, they also want to make sure that goods coming into the EU from the U.K. (Northern Ireland's border with Ireland will be the only land border with EU post Brexit) don't undermine EU standards or customs rules.
In his letter Monday, Johnson said the backstop was "anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the U.K. as a state" as it "locks the U.K., potentially indefinitely, into an international treaty which will bind us into a customs union and which applies large areas of single market legislation in Northern Ireland."
He also said it was inconsistent with the U.K.'s "desired final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship with the EU."
Johnson told Tusk that other "flexible and creative" solutions needed to be found to manage future regulatory and customs arrangements on the island of Ireland post-Brexit. The U.K. has already promoted the use of technology as a way to avoid any physical border checks.
Since his election to lead the ruling Conservative Party, Johnson has stepped up preparations for a "no-deal" departure from the EU, saying that the U.K. would leave the bloc on October 31 "come what may" despite widespread concerns about the disruptions an abrupt departure could cause.