The future of the Irish border remains shrouded in uncertainty as Boris Johnson insists there are “bags of time” for the EU to compromise on the backstop plan before the Brexit deadline.
Theresa May’s solution to Brexit’s Irish question – a Withdrawal Agreement featuring the so-called Irish backstop – was rejected by MPs three times, ultimately forcing her out of No. 10.
Now, her successor is urging the EU to show “common sense” and agree to scrap the backstop, which he claims would “keep us locked in EU regulatory orbit, locked in the EU trading system, unable to control our own laws”.
Speaking during a visit to Oxfordshire this week, Johnson insisted: “We need change on that. Once we get change on that I think we’re at the races, and I think there’s a good deal to be done.”
However, European leaders remain adamant that the backstop arrangements cannot be changed, leaving negotiations in a stalemate as the clock ticks down to the UK’s schedule exit from the bloc on 31 October.
So what exactly is the row about and is there any way out of the impasse?
What is the Irish backstop?
The backstop is a back-up plan, or position of last resort, to be implemented if a permanent trading arrangement is not agreed with the European Union during the 21-month transition period after the UK quits the EU. The aim is to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland, with few restrictions for goods and services crossing the frontier between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The backstop is intended to be temporary but would remain in place “unless and until” alternative arrangements are agreed between the EU and UK that could then replace it, in whole or in part. That is deeply concerning to many Brexiteers, who say it could leave the UK in a close relationship with the EU indefinitely.
The backstop would also mean Northern Ireland remained aligned to some stringent EU regulations while the rest of the UK would not. This is a major concern for Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who have said they won’t accept any difference in rules between Northern Ireland the rest of the UK as it risks the future of the union.
The Government’s own legal advice says the UK might still be unable to exit the backstop if the future relationship negotiations fail. In practice, this means Britain could not unilaterally leave the backstop in the event of an impasse with the EU that was the result not of any demonstrable failure by either party but simply “intractable differences”.
This is one reason why Johnson won’t accept the backstop and has labelled it “dead”, says fact-checking site Full Fact.
Why is the Irish backstop necessary?
The goal of the backstop is “to protect the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to end the Northern Irish ‘troubles’ while ensuring the integrity of EU law”, says the Financial Times.
At present, goods and services are traded on the island between the UK and the Republic of Ireland with few restrictions. As both countries are currently part of the EU single market and customs union, products do not need to be inspected for customs and standards.
But after Brexit, “all that could change – the two parts of Ireland could be in different customs and regulatory regimes, which could mean products being checked at the border”, says the BBC.
Both the EU and the UK have said they do not want the return of border checks, but “the UK’s current red lines, which include leaving the customs union and the single market, make that very difficult” to avoid, adds the broadcaster.
So what happens next?
Many MPs would back a revised version of former PM May’s withdrawal agreement that removes the Irish backstop from the equation.
However, while a deal with the backstop removed might win majority support in the UK Parliament, it is very unlikely that the EU would agree to it.
Senior EU leaders Donald Tusk, Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker have all said that they will not agree to any Brexit deal that doesn’t include a guarantee on the Irish border, reports Full Fact.
Irish PM Leo Varadkar also wants border guarantees, insisting in June that getting rid of the backstop would be as bad as a no-deal Brexit, reports The Guardian.
Varadkar added: “What people are saying is ‘give up the backstop’, which we know will work legally and operationally, in return for something that doesn’t yet exist but might exist in the future.
“I can’t do that to the border communities.”
Is there an alternative to the current backstop?
The EU has said it would be willing to drop the UK-wide customs union at any point in exchange for a Northern Ireland-only backstop.
But the UK has rejected this measure, because it would create an effective customs border in the Irish Sea and potentially regulatory disparity between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain.
Prompted by hard-line Brexiteers, both the UK and the EU have committed to find alternative technological arrangements to avoid a hard border, but “both sides admit such solutions do not yet exist”, says the FT.