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Drop the Backstop Demand!

The Brexit negotiations have been dogged by the question of the border, with the so-called ‘Backstop’ becoming a major obstacle. The initial idea of the Backstop (‘Option C’ from the December understanding) was that it would be used only as a last resort – the aim being to avoid a hard border in Ireland. The Backstop committed the British Government to maintaining full alignment of regulations and rules over a range of areas, with the Irish Republic. It would only be operative should all else fail.

However, both the EU and the Irish Government are now using the threat of the backstop to force the UK Government into their preferred option of keeping Britain in the Customs Union. They have no incentive to engage in any meaningful discussions on how to solve the border problem since they can, in their view, obtain their maximalist position by just sticking to the Backstop and rejecting all reasonable other proposals. The Backstop has ceased being their final resort and is now their first and only resort.

The danger is that by sticking to the Backstop, the EU and Ireland risk scuppering the whole deal. It is a classic example of crash, or crash through and is predicated on the UK conceding on the issue of the Customs Union. However, from an Irish point of view, the dependence of Irish industry and agriculture on the UK both as a supplier and market, as well as serving as a land bridge for Irish exports worldwide, means that in reality it cannot push this matter too far and cause a breakdown.

My Politeia paper, Brexit and the Border explores the alternative options. The UK’s technological solution, which favours maximum facilitation between the custom services in Ireland and the UK, would work well for Ireland and protect the ‘soft’ border. Ireland could also consider leaving the EU Customs Union and maintaining an EFTA type relationship with the EU, on the lines of Norway. That would permit the UK and Ireland to maintain their own customs union. But as long as the Backstop remains on the table, Ireland and the EU are likely to reject any deep discussion of the alternatives.

Neither the Irish Government’s approach or policy is in line with the Good Friday Agreement which commits both the British and Irish Government to treating the two communities in Northern Ireland with equal respect, the parity of esteem principle. While the UK Government has set its face against either a hard border on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and GB, the Irish Government by championing the Backstop is flouting the Unionists desire for no border with their fellow British citizens in GB.

The only politically possible option is the technological one, since the other three have been rejected as non-runners. The technological option is based on the British Government paper of August 2017. This calls for small scale trade and agricultural products to be exempt from border controls and that the larger enterprises, based either on workforce or turnover, operate a trusted trader system, well away from the border itself. This would be based, in part, on trusted trader systems operating elsewhere in the world, including Australia. However, anything, which operates on the Irish border, would, inevitably, have to employ novel solutions.

Such an operation is unlikely to provide 100% satisfaction but could be subject of monitoring over time to ensure its smooth operation. As in many cases, the perfect may be the enemy of the good. If the technological solution is rejected, then we are heading for impasse and instability which is in nobody’s interest.

The Irish Government should therefore:

  • Formally reject the Backstop option as a measure of goodwill.
  • Announce that it does not want to see Ireland and the border used as a weapon to thwart Brexit but wants to maintain the good relations of recent years.
  • Signal to Brussels and London that it wants to engage in discussions on practical measures to ensure no undue hardening of the present land border with Northern Ireland takes place. This will require a new arrangement.
  • Open immediate detailed and direct discussion with London at a political level. The most likely option is one that will be based on technology.



Dr Ray Bassett

Dr Ray Bassett is a former senior diplomat at Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin who served as the country’s Ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas between 2010 and 2016. He is the author of Ireland and the EU Post Brexit (2020) and his Politeia publications include The Irish Border, Brexit and the EU: The Route to Frictionless Trade, (2019, co-published with New Direction) and Brexit – Options for the Irish Border, (2018).

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