DEBUG: blog_post
The Irish Backstop
05 Sep, 2019

Only believe!

London4Europe Committee Member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg can’t see why the Brexiters so dislike the Backstop. If they believed their own rhetoric about technological solutions it would all be fine.


The origins of the backstop

It all began when Theresa May made three irreconcilable promises: the UK to leave the single market and customs union in order to have free trade agreements with third countries; no border in the Irish Sea; and no hard border in Ireland. You can only have two of those.

Hence the backstop. It keeps the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU and keeps Northern Ireland to some extent aligned with the single market in key areas. That was a negotiating triumph for Theresa May. The EU had wanted only Northern Ireland to be in a customs union. But that would have meant a customs border in the Irish Sea.

The Backstop only kicks in at the end of the transition period (during which the whole of the UK is more or less in a customs union with the EU and in the single market) and only if no permanent arrangement has been put in place that removes the need for the Backstop.

There are only three permanent customs arrangements that would prevent the Backstop kicking in: the whole of the UK stays in a customs union; or Northern Ireland alone is in a customs union with the EU and there is a customs border in the Irish Sea; or the Irish Border issue is solved by technology.

The first solution would largely prevent the UK striking new trade deals; the second would allow Great Britain to agree trade deals.


The ERG’s solution

The ERG believe that technology and improved administrative practices can solve the problem. But if so why is the Backstop a problem? Once the technology is put in place there would be no need for a Backstop.

Perhaps the ERG worry that the EU would unjustifiedly keep the UK or Northern Ireland in the Backstop. But the political declaration says "The Parties recall their determination to replace the backstop solution on Northern Ireland by a subsequent agreement that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing."; the supplementary instrument sets out a process for finding ways to avoid implementing the Backstop.

If that is not enough, there could be a further “reasonableness” provision in the treaty or independent arbitration or a vote by the people of Northern Ireland. Anyway, the EU does not seem to wish to have a UK-wide backstop.


The DUP fears betrayal

The DUP would like a hard Brexit. But what they really really want is the continuation of the Union. The present all-UK backstop maintains the Union. So why are they opposed?

Perhaps it is because they long for all those trade deals with third countries far away.

But more likely is that they think an ERG government would betray them and create a border in the Irish Sea in order to pursue free trade agreements at the Great Britain level.


The Border problem is imagined – but not in the way that Brexiters mean

There is a reason why technological fixes could never work – although by that I do not mean that the EU would not accept them. It is that all they would do is manage the Border well. But there would be a Border.

The Good Friday agreement helped the Irish peace process by allowing people in Northern Ireland to feel British, or Irish, or both. Common EU membership and so the effective absence of a Border helps this imaginary dual citizenship along. The EU does the same in other parts of Europe with similar issues, eg the German-speaking Dolomites, a part of Austria annexed by Italy after WWI.

Therefore any Border, no matter how well managed, will challenge that imagined state of living in one country and feeling that one lives in another. It is that challenge to an imagined reality, not the hassle of Customs checks, that is the threat to the Good Friday peace.


We have to be careful in our criticisms

We need to remember what we stand for. The European Peace Project and our membership of it. Remainers have heaped criticism onto Theresa May’s deal. But that was misguided. Following the 2016 referendum the Government had to produce a Brexit plan. The Withdrawal Agreement is fine at what it does (safeguard EU/UK citizens’ rights, pay our bills, safeguard peace in Northern Ireland, transition period). If there is to be a Brexit we would want all that sorted, and the WA does it well enough.

We don’t want Brexit at all. It’s not the WA that is the problem. It is leaving the EU. We need to get the focus of our criticisms right.



Brexiters are always telling us that we have to believe in their project. But Brexiters’ rejection of the Backstop shows that they do not believe their own claims for a technological solution. The DUP’s rejection shows that they worry that the ERG Government will abandon them in order to have GB level FTAs with a border in the Irish Sea. It all shows that even Brexiters do not believe that Brexit can deliver its promises.

Let’s Remain in the EU.




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