Explainer: The Boris backstop – an idea not without roadblocks
How might a Northern Ireland-only compromise look and how might it work?
British prime minister Boris Johnson in Dublin on Tuesday: has signalled some desire to talk and proposed an all-Ireland zone for animal and food safety. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty
So is the Northern Ireland-only backstop the solution to the Brexit mess?
Steady on. What has happened is that the UK government has signalled some change in its position. Boris Johnson originally said that the backstop had to be binned. Now he has signalled some desire to talk and proposed an all-Ireland zone for animal and food safety, which would solve one of the problems relating to the Irish Border, but leave a number of others outstanding. But the UK has not tabled any written proposals in Brussels. And even if it does some kind of piecemeal solution it is unlikely to emerge within a few weeks, never mind getting it approved in London and across the EU.
Wasn’t this Northern-Ireland only idea on the table before?
Yes – but in a more complete form. The backstop is the guarantee in the draft Withdrawal Agreement which would ensure there would never be a hard Irish border, no matter what happened in future talks between the EU and UK on trading arrangements. It is more than a promise – it outlines how its goal would be achieved and says that it must remain in place “unless and until” another way to avoid border checks emerged.
The idea was that if the EU and UK agreed a deal for a close trading relationship the backstop might never be needed. Under the original backstop plan, the North would – if needed – remain more or less part of the EU single market after Brexit, meaning it would be in a different customs regime to the UK and follow rules set in Brussels.
Because the DUP objected, this plan was taken off the table to be replaced by a more complicated UK-wide backstop, under which all of the UK would remain aligned to the EU customs regime if needed. But this became controversial because those looking for a harder version of Brexit pointed out that it would limit the UK’s ability post-Brexit to do trade deals with third countries like the US and diverge from EU rules.
So now the Northern Ireland-only version is back?
Kind of. Johnson has floated the idea of Ireland remaining as a single zone for animal and food safety. This would remove the need for the special checks which would otherwise be needed on animals and food crossing the Irish Border under strict EU rules. It would probably mean greater checks were needed on animals and perhaps on food entering the North from the UK, particularly if rules in the UK diverged from EU standards, or the EU felt the UK wasn’t properly enforcing these rules.
However, checks would still be needed at, or near, the Irish Border to ensure customs and tax rules were met, to control smuggling and, in time, to ensure other product standards were respected. The UK has argued that much of this could be done via so-called “alternative arrangements” – the use of technology and processes allowing companies to declare shipments in advance, pay the relevant duties and so on. However, the EU points out that this would still require checks and possible some infrastructure – to at least monitor the movement of goods – at or near the border.
So a way forward here is not clear, unless Johnson retreats to something like the original backstop plan which, by keeping rules in the North aligned with those in the Republic, means no additional checks would be needed.
What about the argument that the backstop is “undemocratic”?
This refers to the need for the North to continue to accept rules set in Brussels after Brexit, while having no say in them. The UK previously proposed a range of mechanisms to try to get around this – via consultative input for the Northern Ireland Assembly into any decision to invoke the backstop, and proposals to allow consultation and perhaps more on any new EU rules which would come into force in the North. This is obviously tricky territory as a decision to not accept rule changes might threaten the open-border plan by introducing a variation in regulations between North and South. An alternative would be to have a way of consulting the Northern Ireland Assembly – and/or the Executive – on proposals, without giving them a veto.
What the DUP would sign up to – and whether Johnson feels he might get a deal across the line even without them – is open to question. But any deal will count for nothing if it is not approved by the House of Commons, the other 27 EU members and the European Parliament.
In short, there are many hurdles left to jump here and time is very short.