What is the Brexit Backstop? Full explanation

In The Know

The backstop is a term you might have heard people use constantly when referring to Brexit at the moment, the backstop relates to what is potentially the biggest issue in the Brexit negotiations so far.


The Irish, northern Irish border. The 310 mile border has been completely open for 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday agreement brought peace to the border. Currently there are no hard border crossing points between northern island and island with people able to pass freely between countries at the estimated 275 crossing points.


The problem is that this might not be able to continue after Brexit, forgive me if this seems obvious but the EU you needs strong external borders, the block works by setting rules and tariffs for goods and people entering it.

This may not be able to continue after Brexit

Therefore the external borders the union needs be hard so all people and goods coming into it can be checked a monitored to ensure that there following EU laws, without a strong border anyone or anything could sneak into the EU unchecked.


That would effectively invalidate the EU’s tariffs quotas and Laws, similarly if UK wants to set its own immigration rules and create its own trade deals it will need hard borders to prevent goods and people from getting in unchecked.

Having an open border between EU and the UK doesn't work well if both need have hard borders to protect their policies and economic structures.
Currently both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the EU, meaning that they follow the same rules and are part of the same block that means there's no hard Border needed in the same way there's no hard border between France and Germany.


However if no deal was reached between the UK and the EU that would all change, suddenly if there was no deal in place the hard border would be required between Ireland and Northern Ireland, that's not the EU being difficult or the UK media trying to use scare tactics that's how international economic relationships work.


You have to protect your borders, the fear is that we put back a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland it could reignite tensions in the area, that's obviously something that no one wants to see happen, so that's where the backstop comes in.

The backstop as the name suggests is a backup plan, it’s not plan a, plan B or C. or even D but is designed to keep peace between Northern Ireland and Ireland in case a deal isn't reached.


Think of the backstop as a safety net, the backstop isn't supposed to be a permanent solution instead is just a temporary move to keep peace and stability in the area until a full deal is reached.


The EU and UK did originally agree to the concept of a backstop back in December 2017, the problem is that the two sides can't agree on the terms of the backstop yet, and as such is hard to say what the backstop will actually end up looking like.


The EU has suggested a backstop agreement which would leave northern island in the EU’s customs union, parts of the single market and within the EU’s VAT system that is until a final deal is reached.

This would mean until a complete deal is reached from the UK and the EU, Northern Ireland would remain close to the EU and would not require a hard border, as I mentioned earlier their needs to be a hard border between the EU and the UK to protect both laws.


So if Northern Ireland sticks with the EU's economic policies there's no reason to have hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the EU as they are following the same laws.

Therefore we’d no longer need to worry about this border at all, however it would only be Northern Ireland staying close the EU, essentially shifting the border into the Irish Sea. The concern that many Brits have is this could potentially damage the overall union and be a step towards Northern Ireland leaving the UK altogether.


This led to Theresa may rejecting the EU’s backstop plan, she said that she would prefer to see the entirety of the UK continued to be aligned with the EU for limited time after Brexit rather than see Northern Ireland left alone.

The EU aren’t happy with this idea and neither is the Irish prime minister, the principle of a backstop is that it's an arrangement of indefinite length, according the EU the backstop is supposed to be a way of preventing a hard border until a better deal or solution is reached.


The key word there is until, this means that the EU isn’t going to be happy with Theresa May’s made propose ongoing alignment until 2020 or 2022.
The backstop needs to continue to be in place for as long as it takes for a better deal to be reached, ensuring the backstop continues to be in place until that point is vital to keep the EU and Irish governments on side.

The problem for the Prime minister is that a backstop like this would likely be a hard sell in the UK.

Splitting Northern Ireland away from the rest of the UK and having it follow the many of the rules and regulations of the EU single marketing and customs union is a slippery slope to some, and they believe it will lead to Northern Ireland leaving the UK, at very least damaging the UK sovereignty.


Considering the very strong feelings of many Brexiteers it shouldn't be surprising that there's a lot of Brits who don’t want to give up northern island.
In fact it goes beyond the optics of letting Northern Island stay with the EU, it's also not currently legal. The customs bill doesn't give May much flexibility in this area as one of the amendment explicitly prevents Northern Ireland from staying in the customs union.

So the two sides have hit an impasse, the issue of the backstop is being blamed for holding up the negotiations process, the EU aren’t willing to discuss a future deal until issue’s such as the backstop are handled and the UK aren't willing to accept the EU terms of the backstop.


Both sides recognize the need for a legal backstop, just not what it should look like. Some members of the UK government want to see a whole UK backstop, leaving the entirety of the UK in the EU until a deal is reached.

That's unacceptable for Brexit supporting MPs and citizens, the EU wants to keep Northern Ireland within its economic area, and until a deal is drawn, but splitting Northern Ireland away from the rest the UK is unacceptable to the UK government especially to the DUP.

The UK government wants it to be time limited with the entirety of the UK staying aligned with the EU a little longer, a proposal which is unacceptable to the EU, as it’s just pushing the problem down the road.

As you can see securing a backstop isn't going to be easy.