Don’t Blame Boris for the Brexit Backstop Impasse

Britain’s Conservatives and their Democratic Unionist Party allies aren’t the only obstacles to a deal. The EU and the Irish government are also being needlessly stubborn.

Cows stand under a sign for a disused Irish border vehicle registration and customs office outside Dundalk, Ireland on Nov. 14, 2018 near the Northern Irish border.
Cows stand under a sign for a disused Irish border vehicle registration and customs office outside Dundalk, Ireland on Nov. 14, 2018 near the Northern Irish border. PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images

Boris Johnson left the most important leg of last month’s tour of the four nations of the United Kingdom—which he has taken to calling the “awesome foursome”—until last. After being booed in Scotland and Wales, the new prime minister’s reception was no less frosty in Northern Ireland, where the order of business was considerably more serious. 

Since replacing Theresa May as prime minister last month, Johnson has made clear his intention to renegotiate the deal agreed with Brussels by his predecessor—something the EU says it will not do—and take Britain out of the EU by the Oct. 31 deadline come what may. He has ramped up planning for such an outcome and put his cabinet on a war footing. The main obstacle to a deal with the EU that stands a chance of parliamentary approval is the same for Johnson as it was for May: Northern Ireland. 

How to make good on the British government’s desire to leave the EU’s single market and customs union while maintaining an open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland that is vital to peace in the province? The search for an answer to that question has been the most intractable and Kafkaesque issue in the Brexit process so far. Some say technical solutions and checks away from the border can square this particular circle. While others are skeptical, there is reason to think there is more to it than magical thinking on the part of Brexiteers. A 2017 report for the European Parliament explained how technology and international best practices could ensure a “low friction” border. 

The stopgap solution proposed in the deal agreed by May and rejected three times by Parliament—the now infamous backstop—kicks in if the EU and Britain fail to reach agreement on their future relationship by the end of the negotiating period. The measure, which could keep the U.K. within the EU Customs Union in the event of a no-deal Brexit, is loathed by Brexit supporters because it would mean close alignment with EU rules and therefore would limit London’s ability to make the most of its independence from Brussels, for example by striking trade deals with other countries, until alternative arrangements could be found. They fear that the creation of this fallback option would greatly reduce the EU’s incentive to agree to a trade deal with the U.K. To the dismay of many unionists, it could also create the need for regulatory checks on goods traveling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. Getting rid of it is the top item on Johnson’s renegotiation wish list—and his best hope of winning parliamentary support for a deal. 

To many, this represents a dangerous disregard for Northern Ireland’s peace process. The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, brought to an end decades of sectarian conflict. Though the border is not dealt with in the treaty, its invisibility, having once been littered with military checkpoints and fortifications, is one of the clearest signs of the progress that has been made. Even though Johnson, like May, has insisted that, deal or no deal, there are no circumstances in which Britain would impose barriers or checks on the border, the story would appear to be a familiar one: a politician prone to recklessness gambling with peace. 

It is at the Irish border that Brexit’s trade-offs are hardest to ignore. The decision to leave the EU was explicitly about the U.K. “taking back control” of its borders. After Brexit, the Irish border will likely become the frontier of the EU’s single market. That creates a series of headaches when it comes to the integrity of Brussels’s closely guarded four freedoms—of goods, capital, services, and people. However, the openness of the U.K.-Irish border predates the European Union. The frontier has existed since the 1920s, and the full implementation of the Common Travel Area in 1925 allowed restriction-free movement across the border; only during the Troubles, which began in the late 1960s, did it become militarized. Fast-forward to 2019 and keeping that border open is made difficult when one country is a member of the EU and another wants to leave. 

While it is true that Brexiteers have often put their ideological project before the best interests of Northern Ireland, they are not the only guilty party here. A similar charge should be leveled at EU leaders, including Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, for there is more to the EU’s insistence on the backstop than concern for peace—just as there is more to peace than the absence of customs checks on the Irish border. 

After all, given that the backstop has long been one of the biggest barriers to a deal between the EU and the U.K., and therefore an orderly Brexit, it is worth asking how effective an insurance policy it really would be. And given that both the British and Irish governments have repeatedly stated that they will not impose restrictions to the open border, you don’t need to be a hard-line Brexiteer to wonder what motivates the EU’s obstinacy on the necessity of the backstop. 

The bleak backdrop to a Brexit process that is heightening tensions in Northern Ireland includes the murder of the journalist Lyra McKee by dissident Republicans in April; the New Irish Republican Army claiming responsibility for letter bombs sent to airports and railway stations in the U.K. in March; and a bomb explosion in Londonderry in January. Northern Ireland has been without its devolved government for more than two years after the power-sharing agreement collapsed in 2017. The terms of Northern Ireland’s peace are such that unionists and nationalists must agree to form a government together. 

In late 2016, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), then-First Minister Arlene Foster, was implicated in a scandal concerning a Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. When she refused to step aside to allow an inquiry into the scandal, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister, collapsing the government. Another election failed to break the impasse, and ever since the province has effectively been run by civil servants. Brexit or no Brexit, deal or no deal, the imperfect mechanisms that have allowed Northern Ireland’s communities to live in peace in recent decades are getting dangerously rusty. 

It is far from clear that the backstop advances the cause of peace in Northern Ireland. Last month, former First Minister David Trimble, a Unionist politician and co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the peace process, detailed the ways in which the backstop contravenes the Good Friday Agreement in a paper for the London-based think tank Policy Exchange. He argued that the status of Northern Ireland is substantially changed by the backstop: “the internal governance of Northern Ireland is altered and its democracy undermined; the basis of North-South co-operation is removed from democratic oversight and agreement, and the views of Northern Ireland’s elected representatives are ignored at the EU level.”

In other words, the backstop is a violation of the consent principle that is central to the Good Friday settlement, which rules out any changes to the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of its people. “Separating Northern Ireland from the UK’s single market and placing it under a separate economic regulatory regime clearly changes the status of Northern Ireland,” Trimble argued. 

The logic of the backstop seems to forget that there were two sides to the Good Friday Agreement. The preservation of a shaky settlement must be about more than concessions to Republicans.

More generally, the logic of the backstop seems to forget that there were two sides to the Good Friday Agreement. The preservation of a shaky settlement must be about more than concessions to Republicans. Unionists in Northern Ireland reasonably ask why it is that negotiators cannot tolerate anything other than a completely open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland but are happy for the backstop to impose regulatory barriers in the Irish Sea. Here, some accuse the DUP of unprincipled selectiveness when it comes to differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. For example, Northern Ireland has more restrictive abortion laws than the rest of the U.K., a difference the DUP’s Foster is keen to preserve. 

Absent from both sides has been the kind of leadership that is sorely needed, as well as a sense of perspective about what is being proposed. If a situation is so fragile that CCTV cameras cannot be installed on a national border because they would represent a security risk, how stable can a peace be said to be? Yet too few politicians have been able to take a step back and consider the big picture.

The U.K. and Ireland have managed to cope with different currencies, different levels of value-added tax, and other regulatory differences without any fuss. Brexit might be a bigger headache, but, again, the irony of the backstop—and the almighty row it has caused—is that it is vastly reducing the chances of the kind of trade deal between Britain and the EU that would eventually minimize the border problem and vastly increasing the chances of no deal, which will only complicate the already fraught issue.

Such an outcome would be bad economic news on both sides of the border. Over two-thirds of Irish exporters use the U.K. as a land bridge to the rest of the world. In January, Ireland’s central bank warned of a 4 percentage point hit to Irish GDP growth in the first year after a no-deal Brexit. A recent report from Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy painted a similarly bleak picture north of the border. It predicts the loss of 40,000 jobs in Northern Ireland and exports to Ireland falling by 11 to 19 percent in the event of no deal. 

And so economics, as well as the peace process, makes a compelling case for compromise in Dublin and Brussels. Between Johnson’s demand to ditch the backstop altogether and Varadkar’s insistence that it is not open to renegotiation are several sensible changes that would boost the chances of a deal before the Oct. 31 deadline. Options include a long time limit on the backstop, meaning that after a number of years it can only continue to take effect by mutual consent; the creation of legally enforceable obligations to consider alternative arrangements; and other measures to allay fears that the backstop is really just a mechanism by which Brussels will be in a position to dictate terms to the U.K. during future negotiations. 

The case for a time limit is especially compelling. It would look like a meaningful compromise to many members of Parliament looking for a reason to vote for a reworked deal. And it amounts to trading the possibility of border checks in the distant future for the avoidance of a no-deal Brexit in a matter of weeks. In other words, it is a no-brainer for anyone engaged in a good faith search for common ground on this fraught issue. 

As opponents of Brexit are keen to point out, there is more to sovereignty than meets the eye. It is not all or nothing, and sometimes it is trumped by political, economic, and geographic realities. The impasse over the backstop has been a reminder, perhaps a necessary one, to British politicians of the unavoidable consequences of sharing a land border with Ireland. But if Britain cannot outrun geography, neither can Ireland. 

Very few of those involved in the task of delivering on the referendum result of 2016 have had a good Brexit. The list of parties failing to prioritize peace in Northern Ireland is all too long. It includes those Brexiteer MPs who have refused to accept anything other than a platonic ideal of post-EU independence; the similarly implacable DUP; two prime ministers who pandered to the purists in pursuit of power; Remain-supporting MPs whose (most likely unsuccessful) attempt to stop Brexit will have helped bring about the most disruptive departure of all; and a Labour leadership that will pay any price to land a blow on the Conservatives. 

But there should also be space on that list for those in Brussels and Dublin who for too long have had a monopoly on virtue in the search for an outcome to Brexit’s Irish question and whose intransigence looks less responsible by the day. 

Oliver Wiseman is a British journalist based in Washington. He is the co-author of Brexit Revolt: How the UK Voted to Leave the EU. Twitter: @ollywiseman

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