What is the Irish backstop?

Published: 17th Oct 2018

The “Irish backstop” is effectively an insurance policy in UK-EU Brexit negotiations. It’s meant to make sure that the Irish border remains open (as it is today) whatever the outcome of the UK and the EU’s Brexit negotiations. It would mean the UK (or possibly just Northern Ireland) continuing to follow all the rules and regulations of the EU single market and customs union.

The reason the backstop is in the news a lot is that the details of it haven’t been agreed on by the UK and the EU yet. The backstop would kick in if no deal had been struck on the future of the Irish border by the end of the "transition period" (the period after we officially leave the EU in March 2019, during which we can continue to negotiate a future deal with the EU). But there is disagreement over whether the backstop should be for a limited period of time or not, and whether it should apply to the UK as a whole, or just Northern Ireland.

For the moment, there is no backstop solution which is agreeable to all the main parties involved. If no backstop can be agreed, the UK will almost certainly leave the EU with “no deal” in March 2019, meaning a probable return to physical checks on the Irish border.

Why is there a backstop specifically for the Irish border?

The Irish border is singled out by both the UK and the EU for a backstop because of its importance for the Northern Irish peace process. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was a key part of this peace process. One of the agreement’s three main points was creating the infrastructure for “North-South co-operation” between the Irish government and the newly-created Northern Irish Assembly.

This cross-border cooperation was a part of a strategy of “‘normalisation’ of relations between Protestant and Catholic communities within Northern Ireland and across the border”, according to the Institute for Government.

A key part of this ‘normalisation’ and cooperation process was the opening up of the border, which had previously been manned by British soldiers. Today, there are no checks at all on people or goods as they move either way between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and trade across the border was worth £4 billion in 2016. The Irish government has said that the open border is “the most tangible symbol of the Peace Process”.

Both the UK and EU agree that, in negotiating a deal on the relationship after Brexit, keeping the border open and upholding the terms of the Good Friday Agreement is of critical importance. That’s why they’ve committed to the principle that, even if all other negotiations fail, there should be provisions in place to ensure that the border remains open, as it is today. That principle is the Irish backstop.

Why could Brexit affect the border?

The creation of an open border was, at least in part, made easier by the UK and Ireland both being EU members, and therefore part of the customs union and single market, which allows (among other things) the free movement of goods and people between EU countries.

As part of Brexit, the UK intends to leave both the single market and customs union. The terms of the Good Friday Agreement can be upheld without the UK being part of these two things, although customs and regulatory checks on goods will be necessary in some form (possibly away from the border).

Were no agreement to be made between the UK and EU, there would likely be a “hard border” in Ireland which re-establishes physical infrastructure, like cameras or guard posts. This would undermine the principle of North-South cooperation as set out in the Good Friday agreement.

The backstop, designed to stop a hard border, relates to negotiations on a future trade deal during the proposed period of “transition”. This is a period after we officially leave the EU (in March 2019) but before any agreed future relationship kicks in. During transition, we would remain tied to many of the EU’s structures as we continue to negotiate a future deal. The backstop kicks in if those negotiations collapse or fail to address the Irish border question.

But to reach the transition period, the UK and EU first need to sign a “withdrawal agreement” which sets out how transition will unfold. One of the key things currently holding up the withdrawal agreement is a lack of agreement about what the backstop should mean.

What will the backstop mean in practice?

The idea of a backstop is meant to stop the possibility of a hard border in Ireland.

The problem is that it is still an idea. The UK and EU have not come to an agreement on the precise wording of the backstop.

In December last year, the UK and EU published a joint report which set out the steps for dealing with the Irish border issue. These commitments don’t amount to a finalised agreement.

It established that, if the UK and EU failed to agree a trade deal, or an Ireland-specific deal, then the backstop would kick in. The backstop means the UK (while no longer an EU member state) would maintain all the rules and regulations of the EU single market and customs union, in order to support “North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement”.

It also specifies that “no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom”. The EU originally proposed that the backstop need only apply to Northern Ireland—but this would lead to customs and regulatory checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The government says this is not acceptable (and unlawful following a parliamentary vote in July), and so asserts that the backstop would have to apply to the UK as a whole.

But the UK and EU still can’t agree on the finer detail

In June, the UK government suggested that the backstop should be time-limited (to the end of 2021). Some pro-Brexit government ministers and other MPs have expressed concerns that a backstop means the UK will be out of the EU officially, but still tied to its key mechanisms—the customs union and the single market (which they want out of). They want a time limit on the backstop to prevent it being a permanent future relationship, while allowing more time to reach a settlement on the border issue.

But the EU rejects the idea of a time-limited backstop. They argue a time limit means it is no longer a backstop—what happens if time runs out and a deal is yet to be agreed?

As a result (but adding to the confusion) one proposed solution is called a “backstop to the backstop”. This would be another backstop to kick in if the time-limited backstop ends without a deal being agreed. The EU has suggested that the second backstop would apply only to Northern Ireland. This would mean differences in how trade is regulated between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK—something the Democratic Unionist Party (10 Northern Irish MPs whose support Theresa May’s government relies upon) opposes vehemently. Of the second backstop, Theresa May said “We have been clear that we cannot agree to anything that threatens the integrity of our United Kingdom” but did not explicitly rule it out.

What is clear is that no solution has yet been found which all sides can agree to. The negotiations continue.

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