In Praise of the Backstop

As Theresa May goes to and for from Brussels once again the forlorn hope of getting reassurances on the Irish backstop, the Brexit process is stagnating, and the clock keeps on ticking towards March 29th. The hard truth for Theresa May, as revealed by the ERG, is that the hardline Brexiteers in her party will never accept any deal that comes back from Brussels. They saw any cooperation with the EU as suspect, and any hopes of securing their backing at the eleventh hour our woefully misguided, despite desperate hopes for a last-minute solution.

The backstop has, of course, been the major sticking point that has caused the most crocodile tears for the Rees-Mogg and co. The issue of whether to ensure that there is no hard border in Northern Ireland has been causing the government trouble since the negotiations began. The backstop is the only practical solution that keeps the border frictionless and keeps the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement intact. The EU has quite rightly said that there is no other possible solution, no magic unicorn that keeps part of the UK out of a Customs Union and ensures a frictionless border. As the Tories continue to fret over ‘alternative arrangements,’ the prospect of no-deal becomes ever more real.

Theresa May’s deal has many faults, but backstop solution deserves credit, although the Prime Minister is now trying to get rid of it entirely. The essence of the backstop is, however, not so much a solution to be implemented as a safety net that should never come into operation. Both the UK and EU have expressed their wish that a free trade deal should be formulated before the backstop comes into play. We are not stuck forever in a game of who blinks first. Neither has Northern Ireland been ‘annexed’ into an EU Colony, despite what some hardliners would have you believe.

Those in Brussels have come to the lamentable but correct conclusion that whatever deal is given to the Brexiteers, it will never be accepted. Since the referendum in 2016, we have a slide of those who initially supported a second referendum, such as Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson, now deriding it as a ‘betrayal.’ The issue of Ireland was ignored in 2016 by most campaigners and the government’s eternal procrastination to deal with the problem has led to the current Parliamentary impasse. Mrs. May’s attempts to persuade the EU to budge are ultimately futile, and the uncertainty that surrounds a potential no-deal exit and all of the unfortunate connotations that have have been ignored by the overzealous Brexiteers.

Theresa May has little hope of securing Parliamentary backing for her deal, but not because of a major trade agreement but because of a point of principle. Although the Lib Dems in Parliament have so far rejected the rest of May’s deal, with all its flaws, they may have to defend the backstop to prevent even more dangerous consequences.


* Patrick Maxwell is a Liberal Democrat member and political blogger at and a commentator at

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  • “… the forlorn hope of getting reassurances on the Irish backstop”

    I don’t think ‘forlorn hope’ has got anything to do with it; what she is doing is creating a smokescreen of fake initiatives that she must know are pointless and timewasting – with timewasting the operative word.

    She is running down the clock knowing full well that in a very few weeks, by which time HER Deal will be the only alternative to a disastrous crash out No Deal, MPs will have to bite the bullet and vote for HER Deal – the very same deal that was rejected in Parliament by a record margin just a few weeks ago. That makes a mockery of democracy which is what we were told LEAVE meant.

    May’s Deal would reduce the UK to a vassal state, forced to accept all rules made in Brussels. We would have no say or influence unlike now where UK voices have immense influence. And to compound the damage there is no possibility of the tech unicorns so beloved of Rees-Mogg and friends coming to the rescue, and hence no way out of the May Deal except by ceding Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland. In the meantime, we would be unable to negotiate our own trade treaties.

    For over 30 years the UK’s main industrial strategy has been to persuade foreign investors to come here and make Britain their bridgehead into the EU. It’s not the strategy I would have advocated (except as a second string) but it has worked to a point. Now we face the real possibility that much of the UK’s export industry (mostly foreign-owned) will leave over the next decade or so. Also, the City, whose taxes pay for an estimated +60% of the NHS will be a big loser outside the EU; other Free Trade deals don’t cover services.

    It amounts to a licence to asset-strip the UK economy, so I expect a horrific cut in living standards and services.

    I get that Brexiteers are unhappy about aspects of the EU (as am I), but can any of them explain how May’s Deal is supposed to increase democratic accountability in any way? Can any explain how the economy is supposed to work going forward?

    The first rule of international relations (trade or otherwise) is that big fish eat little fish; the desire to become a little fish is perverse in the extreme.

  • Philip Knowles 7th Feb '19 - 10:03am

    The border between Eire and Northern Ireland really ceased to be an issue in 1992 with the advent of the Single Market. In some ways the Single Market may have been the catalyst for the Good Friday Agreement.
    In the event of ‘no deal’ (or Liam Fox somehow getting us a better deal with a third country than the EU has) this will all change. While we have regulatory and tariff alignment there is no need for a border because there isn’t a problem.
    Everyone is talking about legal trade though. All the solutions are based on business legitimately declaring their trade. The problem comes with smuggling. If we can buy, for example, iPhones 20% cheaper than the rest of the EU then the UK becomes a ‘back door’ into the EU and then monitoring the border becomes necessary. The WTO will insist that we have a hard border and no amount of promises from Theresa May will circumvent that. We really do not want to go back to terrorists running a black market in goods over the border and that’s what could happen.

  • Arnold Kiel 7th Feb '19 - 10:13am

    The backstop is indeed to be praised. Not because it solves anything, but because it crystallises the fact that Brexit and peace in NI are incompatible. The interesting question is wether the UK draws the right conclusion in time.

    Ratifying May’s withdrawal agreement would not be the right conclusion, because it would either lead to the nonsensical and therefore short-lived Norway-solution, or a nearer-term breach of the GFA by the UK negotiators who will take over.

    Giving up the UK through Irish unification is also unlikely to protect the peace, as there will remain some militant unionist minority terrorising Ireland for years to come. Expect something like the basque process which took many decades between being a lost case and eventual disarmament.

  • Peter Martin 7th Feb '19 - 10:13am

    “The issue of Ireland was ignored in 2016 by most campaigners………….”

    Yes this is true of both sides. I can understand why Leave would want to downplay the difficulties presented to their case, but why didn’t the Remain side make more of it? It was a strong argument that they, as you say, largely ignored?

    Any theories? Could it have made the difference?

  • Peter Watson 7th Feb '19 - 12:00pm

    @Katerina Porter “We should remember that the will of the people referendum was followed by the election of 2017 where …”
    … overwhelmingly, most votes and seats went to parties promising Brexit in one form or another. 🙁

  • They didn’t lose, they just did worse than in 2015 and better than in 2010, or any other previous elections since 1992.

  • Peter Hirst 7th Feb '19 - 1:05pm

    As I understand it, we have to remain in the custom’s union to maintain a borderless border between Eire and Northern Ireland. Anything different will mean goods gaining access to or leaving the uk without tariffs, so giving an unfair advantage to them, something the eu will not agree to. Also, any border for goods or services is illegal under the Good Friday agreement. So how do we leave the eu unless we also maintain the custom’s union? It’s like trying to circle a square.

  • @ Peter Hirst – Agreed – maintaining a ‘borderless border’ between Eire & NI does indeed mean staying in the Customs Union. But it also means staying in the Single Market.

    The concept of customs and tariffs is simple and familiar (at least superficially) which, I suspect, is why journalists feel comfortable writing about it. The SM isn’t so familiar, so journalists have mostly ignored it.

    Yet the SM is at least as important as Customs, probably more so. It covers things like technical standards, their certification and their mutual recognition. One related control is that anything of ‘animal origin’ can only enter the EU’s SM-zone through a Border Inspection Post (BIP) which must be at the border. In NI that would mean the hardest of hard borders. (For the UK as a whole, it will bankrupt hill sheep farmers whose main market is France and also the inshore fishing industry much – most for some species – of whose catch is exported to the continent.)

    As you say, it amounts to trying circle a square – and even more so when you include the SM.

    @ Peter Martin – Those are good questions. I suggest that the very short answer is that Remain ran an astonishingly incompetent campaign that was (and is) woefully ignorant of the issues – even those that help its cause like the NI border.

    A slightly longer suggestion is that the political establishment’s collective brain has been rotted by the combined effects of four decades of neoliberalism and complete political dominance (I include the non-Tory neoliberals Blair & Clegg). Neoliberalism is little more than a vaguely plausible justification for asset stripping the economy for private gain while proper centre and left of centre thinking and politicians have been missing in action.

    One consequence of the neoliberals’ unchallenged reign is that the apparatus of government itself has decayed rendering it a shadow of its former self. It’s all spookily reminiscent of a company I once worked for that forgot how to manage itself after a takeover and appointment of a new board – cue a sea of red ink and very unhappy staff.

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