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Blue Bitesize #002: The Backstop

Blue Bitesize is a weekly article written by our members, for our members, and looks to explain complex political concepts from both the left and right wings of our party. This week's bitesize has been written by one of our very policy analysts, Kurtis Prosser.

The cornerstone of the Conservative Party’s Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union, and arguably what brought down the May premiership, is the policy of the Irish ‘backstop’. Since the full Withdrawal Agreement was published before Christmas and the historic defeats that followed, the Irish backstop was used as a political football of sorts, both by Mays own MPs, as well as the opposition.

However, whilst it was a regular feature on news bulletins and formed a plethora of soundbites on the radio stations across Britain, not much in the way of detail was passed down into the public sphere, which ultimately confined the backstop to being something that we would only see our MPs fighting over on the six o’clock news. So, let’s try to rectify that.

The backstop was intended to act as a de-facto insurance policy for both the United Kingdom and the European Union. As leaving the EU in its entirety would mean leaving the Customs Union, an area of shared regulations between the member states of the EU, the backstop was essentially formed as a block against this.

As we all know, following the historic defeat in Parliament of the Withdrawal Agreement in January, May was tasked with going to Brussels in March to try and secure more assurances from the European Union, which were ultimately given, but the legal advice from the Government Attorney General still remained the same, saying that we would be unable to unilaterally leave the backstop if the negotiations over the UK-EU future relationship broke down.

So, what exactly is the backstop? Should parliament vote through the Withdrawal Agreement when it is brought back in early June, then on June 30th of this year, the UK would begin its two-year ‘transition period’ with the EU. This two-year period would then be used by the two parties of the negotiations to negotiate the future relationship between the two post-Brexit.

However, if these negotiations were to, for some reason, lead to no agreements on the future relationship, then the UK would continue to trade with the EU under current terms and treaties.

The main sticking point for a lot of those who voted against the Withdrawal Agreement three times is the issue of what would happen to the status of Northern Ireland under the backstop. Whilst the backstop would mean that the UK would be tied into a single customs territory with the EU.

The 'mythical' backstop: what exactly is it?

Northern Ireland, due to having the only land border between the UK and the European Union, would be subject to a number of rules. These rules would only specifically apply to Northern Ireland and the land border between the North and the Republic of Ireland and would require goods from the rest of the UK to be checked in Northern Ireland before entering the EU.

The Irish border is a significant issue for the negotiations both for the UK and the EU due to the significance of the Irish border to the Good Friday Agreement. One of the three central agreements to the Good Friday Agreement was that infrastructure would be created that would allow for ‘North-South co-operation’. As stated by the Institute for Government, the policy of cross border cooperation was a part of a wider policy strategy of ‘” normalisation’ of relations between Protestant and Catholic communities within Northern Ireland and across the border.”’

In the negotiations between the UK and the EU, it was agreed that keeping the border open, as agreed in the Good Friday Agreement, was to be a central aim of both negotiating teams. Thus, if the negotiations over the future relationship were to turn sour, then the policy of keeping the border open would still remain, and ultimately, the backstop provides this solution.

There are, however, ways to avoid the backstop. Within the Withdrawal Agreement published by the government, there is a clause that would allow for the UK and the EU to remove the backstop requirements entirely. Although this would require the agreement of both the UK and the EU, it provides a vehicle that would act as a way alleviating both the fears of the Unionists and the EU, who ultimately don’t want this to happen as much as the British government does.

In short, the backstop, whilst understandably unpalatable to most MPs, it is only meant to act as an insurance policy should the negotiations between the UK and the EU over the future relationship break down and there needs to be a continuity in regulations to avoid any issues. MPs are opposed to the backstop as it is perceived to place Northern Ireland under a different set of regulations than the rest of the UK, which for unionists both in the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, who the Tories rely on, is wholly unacceptable, as it undermines the very principles of the Union.

- Kurtis Prosser