And what a structural change to the Withdrawal Agreement means for Northern Irelandby Allie Renison / October 18, 2019 / Leave a comment
At last we have an answer to the question of how this government was planning to remove the backstop from the withdrawal agreement. The Northern Ireland circle has been squared—in part—by frontloading a fudge of “solutions” into a deal that is only supposed to be about the exit process. The most contentious part of Theresa May’s deal, meant as an insurance policy, has become contentious again for a different reason—the backstop is now the “frontstop,” and with it we have a piece of the future relationship with Europe in plain sight. However, the new protocol still leaves an awful lot of important questions unaddressed.
For most people and businesses in Great Britain, there is little in the actual exit deal that has changed. The future relationship priorities have been pared back in the non-binding political declaration, and a looser arrangement is implicitly envisioned for the UK, although references to level playing field commitments on things like workers’ rights do still provide for a range of outcomes in this respect.
Labour’s concerns about the government unwinding commitments on social standards are not straightforward, as these were only ever binding in the event of the original backstop (which many on both sides said they didn’t want to ever have to trigger) being activated. The customs union foreseen in that scenario drove the obligations around regulatory standards. Nothing about the future relationship in the previous deal—or arguably ever during the exit process—was intended to be locked in, in light of the political declaration being unable to act as a binding treaty about the future.
But for Northern Ireland, the future is now more rapidly upon it with this deal. The new protocol added makes clear that its contents will be the starting point from the end of 2020. The hope will be that a future trade agreement and wider future relationship deal will answer many of the questions left open in this protocol. That is important because there are many. The previous backstop left some questions open on the practical issue of how to manage any extra controls needed at ports or commercial premises should it ever be triggered, but these were fairly small in number. This frontstop presents a far bigger set of open-ended questions that need answering to make it operational, and that derives from the government…