DEBUG: blog_post
Shadow boxing or reality on the Irish border
06 Feb, 2019

What does the backstop really rule out?


London4Europe Committee member and former HM Treasury senior civil servant Michael Romberg, with contributions from Vice-Chair Nick Hopkinson, tries to disentangle what we are really arguing about.


Formally, a referendum is likely to be a vote on the withdrawal agreement. The political declaration is open and non-binding - a blah blah Brexit; the actual future relationship will be settled in the post-Brexit negotiation. In the Withdrawal Agreement, only the backstop really affects the future.


The Irish backstop

So what are the options that the Irish backstop in the withdrawal agreement actually rules out?  

Really only the UK having no positive relationship with the EU (WTO) or a UK level Canada FTA. The withdrawal agreement does not rule out Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) having a Canada FTA or WTO relationship with the EU and a partial border in some (mainly agricultural) goods in the Irish Sea. The DUP would of course oppose this, and if in a position to block this, would continue to do so. Only if we replicated for Great Britain every provision in the backstop would there be no Irish Sea border. So really only a Norway Plus arrangement (Customs Union and Single Market) could consign the Irish backstop to history. Of course, it would be much easier if we remained a member of the EU as the issue wouldn’t arise at all!

So the argument about the backstop (the argument between No-deal and a deal) is a proxy argument for: close and friendly relations with the EU; or distant, perhaps even hostile?


The future relationship

What form Brexit with the Withdrawal Agreement should take could sensibly be the subject of a post-Brexit general election. The difference between Norway/ Norway Plus and the May/Corbyn Brexit is real.

But the Brexit project has radicalised since the referendum. The Remain campaign has not argued for Freedom of Movement. So, even with some measured reduction in public hostility to immigration, there is no prospect of success right now for Norway/EEA - however attractive it would have been as a compromise in the Autumn of 2016 (and however much I would argue for it if - alas - Brexit actually happens).


No more cake

So the essential question to ask in the 2019 referendum is the three options that command widespread popular support: No-deal, Deal, Remain. That is enough choice.

Because the key fourth option that is off the ballot paper is the set of Brexits that were offered in 2016, none of which is available. There is no cake that is self-regenerating post consumption; no suite of advantageous trade deals ready to go; no £350m; no EU begging us merely to state our terms so that they can agree to them because we hold all the cards; no world demanding that we assume global leadership; no control being taken back; no agreed list of EU laws we will free ourselves from; no former colonies calling for Empire 2.0; no agreed package of UK domestic reforms that required Brexit.

The answer is Remain

So we should not let ourselves be distracted by any of the Brexits on offer, no matter how charismatic the leader who promotes them. They are all sub-optimal. They all mean turning our back on the great European peace, democracy, friendship project. The main ones seek to create barriers between individuals by the joint May/Corbyn rejection of freedom of movement. 

We stand for Remain.




The blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair of London4Europe. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author, not necessarily of London4Europe.