Candidates for the Conservative leadership insist they can deliver changes but legal experts are less convincedby Alex Dean / June 20, 2019 / Leave a comment
The future of Brexit is turning on the Northern Ireland backstop. It has become the most intractable problem in Britain’s departure from Europe. The backstop sunk Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement—and with it, her premiership. If they’re not careful, it could sink whoever comes next. While it remains in the Brexit deal, parliament could simply refuse to give its assent.
For their part, the EU and the Irish government insist the backstop must remain. Yet Conservative leadership candidates breezily claim that they could strip it out. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner, has said we need simply apply more negotiating force. Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt are also promising changes, as is Sajid Javid—with a £500m sweetener for the Irish government. The hope is for a full removal or expiry date.
But what to make of those candidates’ promises? Is there really any prospect of renegotiating the backstop? Having spoken with leading politicians and legal experts it is clear that there is not. The backstop will remain in the deal and any serious strategy for Brexit must recognise this fact. The absence of realism on this point is regrettable, to put it mildly, and underscores our lack of preparedness for the challenges ahead.
The Northern Ireland backstop is an insurance policy to avoid a hard Irish border—and therefore safeguard the Good Friday Agreement. In the absence of other solutions, it would keep Northern Irish regulations aligned with the Republic and the EU. That would prevent the need for checks on the island but would necessitate controls down the Irish sea. For the DUP and other passionate unionists that is anathema. Meanwhile hardline Brexiteers fear the backstop could keep the UK as a whole tied closely to Europe within the customs union, with no prospect of escape.
Yet some of them insist the backstop can be changed. For Sammy Wilson of the DUP, “if the UK government adopts a strong stance in its negotiations with the EU” then “magically a solution to the Irish border which does not require the current backstop will emerge.”
For Theresa Villiers, former Northern Ireland Secretary, the key point is that the backstop is simply not needed. Alternative plans worked up would “maintain a border which is invisible and free-flowing, but also compliant. These plans deploy existing technology and existing administrative flexibilities.” Put those to Europe, some argue, and it will have to fold.
Renegotiation has impressive…