The Irish Backstop: What is it, and what does it mean for Brexit?

As the Brexit deadline approaches, MPs have yet to reach a deal to determine the country’s future outside of the European Union. The United Kingdom is due to leave the EU at 11pm on Friday 29thMarch, when the two-year withdrawal process triggered by Article 50 expires. In January, MPs rejected the withdrawal deal that the government had negotiated with the EU by 230 votes, making it a historic loss for Theresa May’s government.

There are several issues preventing MPs from supporting the government’s Brexit proposal and the threat of a no deal Brexit looms. Prominent among the factors which led to the defeat of the proposed Brexit deal is the issue of the ‘backstop’ for Northern Ireland, a measure designed to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland invisible after Britain leaves the European Union. The backstop is important to establishing rules for trade across the Irish border if no other agreement can be made, but it also carries significance in the way that it affects the invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a symbol of the peace reached between the two after decades of conflict.

The backstop was agreed between the United Kingdom and the EU in December 2017. Both agreed that an insurance mechanism was needed to guarantee that, regardless of the nature of the deal, the invisible Irish border would be upheld. It is an option of last resort, in the event that there is no other solution reached within the Brexit agreement. The backstop would kick in almost two years after Brexit if the UK and the EU had not managed to reach an agreement to otherwise avoid physical border checks.

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Efforts to negotiate a solution to keep the border invisible have been difficult. The EU has suggested that Northern Ireland should stay in the single market and EU customs union in order to match the rules either side of the border on customs, energy, environment, agriculture and fisheries. This would effectively establish a customs border in the Irish Sea, rather than on land. However, Theresa May has insisted that it would not be reasonable to apply different customs regulations to one part of the UK.

In the event of a no deal Brexit, there won’t be a backstop arrangement. This means there would be  no guarantee of how the passage of goods across the Irish border would be handled. Keeping the border invisible is viewed as important for a number of practical and symbolic reasons. Reaching a customs deal is vital to protecting cross-border trade, which was worth an estimated £4 billion in 2016. However, the Irish border is singled out for a backstop in particular because of its importance to upholding the peace process.

The 1998 Belfast Agreement, known as the Good Friday Agreement, helped end decades of violent conflict in Northern Ireland. One of the conditions of the Good Friday Agreement was to create infrastructure for “North-South co-operation” between the Irish government and the Northern Irish Assembly, part of which involved opening up the border. The Irish government has called the open border’ “the most tangible symbol of the Peace Process”. The Belfast Agreement removed the needfor border checks when crossing between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland. Physical border posts were a target of Republican violence throughout the Troubles and a tangible reminder of the conflict between the two sides, and there are fears that the return of a physical infrastructure at the border could provoke renewed tensions.

The Good Friday Agreement can be upheld with the UK leaving the single market and the customs union, but there will be a need for customs and regulatory checks on goods in some forms if there are to be different customs rules and regulations on either side of the border after Brexit. There is a possibility that these could take place away from the border.

After the defeat of the government’s proposed deal in January, Theresa May must take the debate back to Brussels to try to find a mutually-agreeable alternative that MPs will get behind. She is expected to discuss a range of possible alternatives to the backstop, including a ‘trusted trader’ system, ‘mutual recognition’ of rules with the EU, or the use of technological solutions. An alternative that has been proposed by a working group comprised of Remainers and Leavers involves extending the transition period until the end of 2021 to prevent triggering the backstop. At the moment, it will require mutual agreement with the EU for the UK to  opt out of the Irish backstop. It is likely that this will only happen if both sides can agree that the backstop is not necessary to avoid a hard border.

The Prime Minister met with the Irish Taoiseach(the Irish PM) Leo Varadkar on Friday 8thFebruary in Dublin, hours after he met Northern Ireland’s key political parties in Belfast, to discuss Brexit developments and the ongoing suspension of the Northern Irish Assembly, which has not met since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive on 9thJanuary 2017. This week, Mr Varadkar once again emphasised his government’s position in favour of the backstop. However, it seems unlikely that the House of Commons will accept any Brexit deal with the current backstop and Mrs May must seek an alternative solution by working with the EU and MPs as the clock runs out on Brexit.


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