TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club(YJC)_By all accounts, the so-called backstop is the biggest obstacle to securing a new Brexit agreement.
The old agreement, introduced as the Withdrawal Agreement Bill by former PM Theresa May, was rejected three times by the House of Commons due to strong opposition to the backstop.
In essence, the backstop is an insurance policy to ensure that the Irish border remains open irrespective of how the UK’s exit from the EU develops in the years ahead.
The backstop would only become operational if the UK and the EU fail to agree on a permanent trade deal at the end of a post-Brexit transition period, which could last until December 2022.
Once it has been activated, the backstop would necessitate the UK entering into a “single customs territory” with the EU. This would disproportionately affect Northern Ireland which will remain aligned to extra EU laws and regulations so as to ensure a “soft” border with the Republic of Ireland.
Earlier in the year, the House of Commons could not support the backstop because its provisions could prove indefinite, thereby locking Northern Ireland into a potentially permanent relationship with the EU.
MPs opposed to May’s Brexit deal argued that the spectre of Northern Ireland remaining permanently aligned to the EU constitutes a violation of British sovereignty.
But is there a viable alternative to the Irish border backstop? In recent weeks there has been renewed efforts to find alternatives as the clock runs down to Brexit day on October 31.
The problem is, as The Irish Times reported on August 27, quoting the Irish foreign minister, that none of the alternatives come “even close” to being acceptable to the EU.
Most of the alternatives proposed by British negotiators revolve around technical schemes to keep the Irish border open whilst avoiding aligning Northern Ireland with EU laws and arrangements.
These alternative plans include trusted trader schemes and checks on goods away from the Irish border.
But the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, has dismissed these arrangements as inadequate.
Addressing a press conference in late August, Coveny said that the alternative arrangements that have been discussed to date “do not do the same job as the backstop – not even close. And so let’s not pretend that solutions exist when they might not”.
There appears to be a sharp divergence of vision between the UK and the EU as to how to keep the Irish border open.
Whilst the UK is proposing border-centred “technical” solutions, the EU insists on a wider economic and regulatory framework, which necessitates a degree of legal and institutional alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU.
Thus, there was little surprise that after his meeting with Johnson, Jean-Claude Juncker declared that the UK has “yet to present solutions to the backstop”.
It remains to be seen whether the two sides can sufficiently narrow their differences before next month’s EU summit in Brussels, which is set to begin on October 17.