Like falling dominos, the remorseless logic of avoiding a border in the Irish Sea eventually pulls the whole of the UK into the customs union and single marketby Ian Dunt / June 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
There is no way out of the backstop omnishambles Theresa May finds herself in. She is trapped on all sides by immovable objects and impossible choices. You might even feel sorry for her—if it wasn’t for the fact that she is directly responsible for it all.
The backstop originally reared its head in the December agreement with the EU. All it really does is restate the British government’s own negotiating objective, which is that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland.
May’s current plan to avoid that is either a customs partnership or the so-called ‘max-fac’ model of technological solutions.
Neither of these are treated with any seriousness by those who understand these things, so an insurance policy is required in case they fail, which they almost certainly will.
That’s what the backstop is. It says: If everything else goes wrong, here is the safety net.
Theresa May’s problem
Today, May intends to publish the British government’s proposal for the backstop. Her problem is threefold: time, space and depth.
Time is the issue dominating the media speculation. Hardline Brexiteers, led by David Davis, insist that the backstop must be time-limited. This is a strange proposition.
If it is time-limited, it is not a backstop. That’s just a point of semantic fact.
Downing Street seems to accept this, at least for the time being.
Lost in space
Then there is the space problem. The EU provision is just for Northern Ireland. This would mean that a border would have to be put up in the Irish Sea, between it and Britain. That would not be acceptable to the Tories’ coalition partners in the DUP. So May is instead proposing that it covers all of the UK.
Europe will resist this. Many Brexit commentators—including myself—misjudged this issue in December. We thought the backstop would suck in the rest of the debate and churn out a soft Brexit for the whole of the UK. But actually that doesn’t work.
If Britain ended up in the customs union by default, it would create a weird constitutional contortion. We’d be in the legal and regulatory ecosystem of Europe, but without a formalised structure to how it would work.