The true cause of our backstop obsession

The protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is the clearest demonstration yet of how difficult it is to “take back control” of national borders

March 08, 2019
Photo: David Young/PA Archive/PA Images
Photo: David Young/PA Archive/PA Images

When the Withdrawal Agreement comes back to the House of Commons, the prime minister will seek to present a sturdy bridge over the stumbling block of the so-called “Irish backstop.” Why is it that the whole deal—and perhaps even the process of Brexit itself—will stand or fall on this one aspect of the 585 page Agreement?

The obsession with the backstop can be understood because it is the clearest iteration we have had to date of the difficult choices and challenges facing the UK on exiting the EU. Such dilemmas all centre on what it means to “take back control” of national borders.

At the moment, what it means to lose free movement of goods, people, services and capital can be left quite ambiguous—and still, some might say, in the land of unicorns and cake—in the Political Declaration on the Future Relationship. In fact, the consequences of this have never been spelled out by the British government. Except when it comes to the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

The Protocol has been written up in some detail precisely because the UK and EU need to be sure how to handle this most sensitive of borders if (and this is a big “if”) the relationship between the UK and EU becomes much more distant or even more frosty in future. Or, more likely, if they are simply bogged down in the detail of negotiating the future trade agreement and the alarm clock—that the UK insisted on setting for a short time hence—starts ringing. We could run up against our self-imposed deadline for the pursuit of other options.

People don’t like the backstop for different reasons, and this reflects the various dimensions of border control. Some don’t like the whole UK being in a customs territory with the EU as a means of avoiding customs controls. Some don’t like the differentiated arrangements for Northern Ireland as a means of avoiding regulatory barriers across the Irish border. Many don’t like the fact that the backstop itself has no expiry date, so as to ensure it is there as a safety net for unforeseen events. Others do not like the condition that both parties have to agree for it to be discontinued, in order to ensure orderly and cooperative border management.

The truth is that implementing the backstop would be uncomfortable. If being part of it is a darn nuisance, then the hope would be that this concentrates minds on trying to come up with more stable alternative arrangements. (And let me note here that those “alternative arrangements” will not be technological solutions per se. Technology is not an “arrangement” in itself but a means of improving the efficient implementation of laws and policies).

That so much rests on the backstop at this point just highlights the ironies and misconceptions that have bedevilled all discussion of it so far. The first irony—to return to my original point—is that although it is the only bit we know in some detail about what the future UK-EU relationship might entail: it is not what either the UK or the EU want for the future relationship.

As noted above, there are myriad reasons why the UK doesn’t like it. They can be simply summarised thus: because it entails compromise. The EU doesn’t like it for the same reason, but from a different perspective. It entails compromise of the EU’s customs union. The UK would have tariff free and quota free access to the EU, to avoid customs controls on the Irish land or sea border.

And it entails compromise of the single market. For it breaks up the four freedoms: effectively allowing free movement of goods to and from Northern Ireland but not the other three. It also means that Northern Ireland would be outside the EU but treated as if it were part of the single market in some areas, including agriculture—a privilege that even the non-EU members of the European Economic Area do not have. This is a huge ask of the EU, which is so protective of its single market and so suspicious (with no small cause) of British agri-food, especially meat products.

And there is second irony in all of this. Whilst British MPs complain about being “trapped” in a customs union or Northern Ireland “tied into” the single market, they miss the fundamental point: that as Article 1.3 of the Protocol makes clear, what we see in the backstop is purely what the EU is prepared to do for the “unique circumstances on the island of Ireland.” 

Be in no doubt that when the negotiations on the future relationship begin, we will see far less ambiguity and flexibility from the EU. It is not only the UK that is interested in “taking back control.”