If I received a pound for every time the word ‘backstop’ was mentioned on BBC News in the last 3 weeks, I’d be a rich man. Arguably the most contentious issue within Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, the backstop is a highly sensitive issue which puts the UK in a very dangerous situation politically, and economically both in the present and future. In this article, I’ll be discussing what the backstop is, why many feel it’s needed and why there’s so much opposition to it.
The News thus far, has not presented the Brexit procedure very clearly. What most people don’t understand is that the withdrawal agreement Theresa May has negotiated doesn’t detail the UK’s future, long-term, relationship with the EU. Instead it agrees what will happen immediately after the UK leaves the EU and only briefly outlines what a future relationship could look like. The agreement includes things like what rules the UK follows after it leaves the EU and describes the status of UK citizens living in the EU and vice versa. It also outlines a transition period of 21 months after the 29th March, a period where nothing much will change and the UK will still follow EU laws but will not be a member of any EU institutions. It is during this transition period that the future relationship will be negotiated with the EU. Most controversially, the withdrawal agreement also details a backstop for the Irish border.
In simple words, the backstop is an insurance policy that will come into force if no trade deal is agreed between the UK and EU during the transition period. This is achieved by keeping the UK in a customs union with the EU and keeping Northern Ireland within elements of the EU single market to ensure there is no hard, physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This is to preserve the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which brought peace to the island of Ireland by, amongst other things, removing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. A full definition for the backstop can be found on the legal text of the withdrawal agreement. A single customs territory means that the UK would have to follow EU customs rules with no say on EU trade policy and no power to negotiate its own independent trade deals with other countries.
To understand why keeping the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is so important, you only need to look at images from the Troubles (a period of violence in Northern Ireland from 1968 until 1998). Checkpoints manned by British soldiers on the Irish border became a magnet for violence during the conflict between Republicans, who wanted Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland, and Loyalists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the UK. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was signed and ratified in referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This brought an end to the Troubles and peace to Northern Ireland by: setting up power sharing in Northern Ireland between Unionists and Republicans in the form of a regional parliament (Northern Ireland Assembly); promoting increased north-south cooperation; disarmament of paramilitary groups and the removal of security installations on the Irish border. Both the UK and EU know the risk of a return to a hard border. It could reignite tensions in Northern Ireland disrupting the delicate peace which has held since 1998.
Theresa May’s deal was defeated in the House of Commons by a record margin of 432 to 202 votes. 118 Conservative rebels, alongside Theresa May’s governing partners the DUP, voted against the deal. This highlights the strong opposition to the deal mainly due to the backstop. The DUP are staunch unionists, though they want to avoid a hard border, they rejected the backstop due to how it treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. This goes against their Unionist principles as it could pave the way for Northern Ireland leaving the UK permanently. The main issue for Conservative rebels is how the UK is unable to withdraw from the backstop. To come out of the backstop arrangement, there must be joint agreement from both the UK and EU. The big fear for Conservative Brexiteers is that the UK may be locked within the single customs territory, indefinitely, unable to pursue an independent trade policy and being shackled to EU customs laws. This is a big sticking point for many MPs. The UK, by law, is able to withdraw from the EU and UN, but would not be able to withdraw from the backstop without explicit consent from the EU.
What the Jacob Rees Moggs and the Boris Johnsons of the Conservative Party fear is the possibility of the UK not being able to negotiate a trade deal with the EU during the transition period. The fear is that the EU could just walk away from negotiations which would, by law, place the UK in the backstop at the end of the transition period leaving the UK under EU customs rules. The EU has stated that the backstop is only a temporary measure until a better solution is found. However, the fear amongst many is that once the UK is in the backstop, it could be difficult to bring the EU back to the negotiating table because by renegotiating out of the backstop, the EU potentially could have a lot to lose, but nothing to gain. If the UK gets a good free trade deal with the EU, it could result in other countries leaving the EU.
Labour’s position is more unclear. Whilst opposed to the backstop, the official stance from Corbyn is that he wants to negotiate a ‘comprehensive customs union’ with the EU and to stay as close to the single market as possible which is essentially what the backstop is. This soft form of Brexit, however, is not the sort of Brexit that many leave voters voted for. Staying close to the single market could mean the continuation of free movement of people as well as adhering to EU customs rules, with no say in EU trade policy as the UK would no longer have MEP’s in the European Parliament. The Labour party is just as divided as the Conservative party on Brexit. Many in the Labour party are pushing for the so called ‘people’s vote’, a second referendum. The Brexit process has been dragging on for so long due to there being several options on the table but no majority for anything resulting in deadlock in parliament.
Whilst there is no majority in the House of Commons for the withdrawal agreement with the backstop, there is a majority for the deal with alternative arrangements to the backstop. On the 29th January, MPs voted with a majority for the Graham Brady’s amendment. Amendments are an opportunity for MPs to alter the direction of legislation. If an amendment is passed, it shows that parliament agrees to a policy, with a few changes. The Brady amendment was to accept the deal, with an ‘alternative arrangement’ in place of the backstop. This shows how the backstop is ultimately the main sticking point in May’s withdrawal agreement as a majority of MPs would back the deal, if the backstop was replaced. However, this amendment doesn’t specify any alternative arrangements that could be put in place.
The Brady amendment has given Theresa May a mandate to return to Brussels to renegotiate the backstop. Some proposals being put forward to solve the backstop question are listed below:
- Time limited backstop: Putting a 5-year limit on the backstop. Although Conservative Brexiters would support this, it would defeat the whole purpose of the backstop as an insurance policy. A hard border could easily return at the end of the backstop if no solution was found and this would be unacceptable to many in the EU and the house of commons. It simply pushes the problem further down the road
- Giving the UK an exit mechanism from the backstop: this would allow the UK to withdraw from the backstop on its own, but again, although it may get commons support, it defeats the purpose of the backstop as it wouldn’t prevent a hard border as there’s no guarantee an arrangement will be in place to prevent a hard border.
- Technology: Using GPS and declaring goods at warehouses to remove the need for physical customs checks at the Irish border, like the Norway/Sweden border. Brexiters believe this is the way forward but on the Norway/Sweden border, there are still customs checkpoints between the 2 countries.
However, the EU has repeated again and again that the backstop is not up for negotiation. The EU views the backstop as essential to maintaining the Good Friday Agreement, and peace on the island of Ireland. With the EU not likely to budge and the UK parliament unable to find a majority for any Brexit solution, it’s unclear as to what direction Brexit will take. Will Article 50 be extended? Will the EU finally give May the concessions she needs? Will the UK crash out of the EU with no deal or will the fear of a no deal force MPs to eventually back the deal? MPs will be voting today on amendments which could shape the direction of negotiations in the next few weeks. What we can certainly say is that this is one of the most turbulent political periods in recent memory and what happens in the next few months will shape Britain for generations to come.
There’s a lot of jargon being used on the News at the moment surrounding Brexit. I’ve tried to break down some of this in the Brexit terminology explained section below. For a better understanding of the Brexit process, I would highly recommend a series of videos called ‘Brexit Explained’ on a YouTube channel called TLDR News. Their videos go into much further depth about the Brexit process and alternatives to Theresa May’s deal. Link to TLDR News
Brexit terminology explained:
- Article 50: Part of the EU’s treaty, when activated, it gives a country 2 years to negotiate withdrawal from the EU. Article 50 can only be extended if every other EU member agrees.
- Withdrawal Agreement: The agreement that Theresa May has negotiated with the EU for the terms of the UK’s departure which includes citizen’s rights, details on the transition period after we leave, the UK settlement to the EU and the backstop. The withdrawal agreement does not set out the future UK-EU relationship after the transition period but sets out an outline for what both parties want in a future relationship.
- Customs Union: An agreement where countries agree to eliminate all tariffs on goods being transported between countries in the union. All countries also have the same tariffs for goods coming in and out of the union.
- Single Market: An agreement between EU countries which enables the free transfer of goods, services and money between countries.
- No Deal: If the UK leaves the EU on the 29th March with no agreement in place resulting in all ties to the EU being cut. The UK would trade with the EU on WTO (World Trade Organisation) rules and all trade deals that the UK had as an EU member would disappear resulting in the disruption in the flow of goods to and from the EU due to customs checks.
- Transition period: A period lasting until the end of 2020, with an option to extend by 2 years. A period where the future UK-EU relationship is negotiated. During this period, the UK will still be following EU laws, but will have no say in how laws are made or implemented.