The protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is the clearest demonstration yet of how difficult it is to “take back control” of national bordersby Katy Hayward / March 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…