What is the Irish border ‘Brexit backstop’?

Theresa May and Leo Varadkar

Theresa May and Leo Varadkar

The Irish border backstop issue has dominated much of the conversation around Brexit for the past several months. What is it, and why is it causing so much political upset?

What is the backstop?

The backstop is a ‘backup plan’ – the last resort position, should the UK leave the EU without an all-encompassing deal. Its purpose is to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Currently, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland trades with the Republic of Ireland relatively freely, without border checks, as both regions are part of the EU single market and customs union.

However, if the UK crashes out of the EU without securing a deal on trade, many fear this could see the emergence of a hard border in Ireland, manned by customs officials making checks on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This – amongst other problems – would threaten the 1998 Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement) which removed the need for checks on goods passing between the two regions. Neither region wants to see the return of a hard border, as this is currently – for all purposes – an invisible border.

For this reason, both sides now agree that the UK – Northern Ireland in particular – must have some kind of arrangement with the customs union, at least until an all-encompassing trade deal is settled, though the two sides have different views on how this future trading relationship should work.

The backstop is now believed to be the biggest obstacle preventing a withdrawal agreement being reached between the UK and EU, as each side has its own sticking points with regards to the issue.

What’s the UK’s position?

The UK government’s latest position is that if the UK remains in a customs arrangement, this would have to be temporary, and only in place until another deal is arranged with the EU.

What’s the EU’s position?

The EU has thus far rejected the idea of any kind of time limit being imposed on the backstop arrangement. They have insisted that any backstop must apply “unless and until” it is no longer needed.


Michel Barnier is the EU’s Chief Negotiator for Brexit.

In recent months, the EU has proposed what is now widely known as the ‘backstop to the backstop’: even if the UK seeks to form its own trade deals away from the EU, Northern Ireland must remain obligated to the EU customs rules. Theresa May argues that this is impossible, as it would break up the United Kingdom.

A time limit to the backstop arrangement is particularly desirable for Theresa May, as it would allow her to quell the concerns of many Brexiteers, who fear that the UK could be trapped in a customs arrangement.

To add further complications, Irish premier Leo Varadkar has told Theresa May it would be unacceptable for the UK to dictate terms of any backstop arrangements with the EU, and has also rejected the idea of a time limit to the backstop.

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