Belfast Telegraph

How the backstop idea has turned into political maze


The border’s future is now a huge issue
The border’s future is now a huge issue
John Simpson

By John Simpson

The 'backstop' proposals emerged as an answer to worries that Brexit would disrupt business across the island of Ireland. The high level political ambition, easily accepted, was that there should be a frictionless border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Before the politicians, civil servants and Brexit negotiators got into the detail of how to make the border frictionless, the principle was repeated without major opposition.

The practicalities of the political debate have shown how a good idea has become a political maze.

Businesses in Northern Ireland were supposed to get the benefits of BOTH being an undifferentiated part of the UK marketplace AND also being part of the EU trading market.

What was intended to be having the best of trading access in the UK and also in the EU (of 27 states) has become a major political fault line as well as an administrative challenge.

The method of implementing the backstop, influenced by unavoidable administrative tasks, has caused offence to some politicians.

To take advantage of trading within the EU, some of the goods manufactured in NI (or adjudged to be of NI origin) should meet the EU trading standards: they must satisfy rules on regulatory alignment.

Regulatory alignment in late 2018 and going into 2019 poses no difficulty.

Whilst the UK is a member of the EU, regulatory alignment is already in place. The threat to alignment is that, after Brexit, unless the new trading arrangements make specific arrangements for the UK to agree to stay in alignment (which may still happen), there is the prospect that the UK arrangements will begin to diverge.

The backstop would mean that, for NI to have special access to the EU marketplace when the GB market began to have different regulatory standards, NI businesses would potentially trade with standards that differed from GB. That potential outcome is proving politically divisive.

Is NI getting the best use of two options or is this an unwelcome division in the UK arrangements?

Should this be seen as a commercial choice within the flexibility of the devolution arrangements or should it be treated as a constitutional question? Obviously, opinions differ.

Implementing the backstop arrangements as they were initially tabled has proved controversial.

Much of the debate at Westminster (usually, but not only, from English MPs) takes little account of the Good Friday Agreement. The European Commission supports the Irish argument that a special arrangement is merited.

To help facilitate cross-border trade on this island to the benefit of both north and south, something akin to an emergency backstop is needed.

If the backstop was simply written out of the deal, it would be difficult to maintain all-island free trade unless and until a comprehensive UK-EU trading agreement is finalised.

That points to the merits of a temporary backstop which might end at that stage.

As this is being written, there is still no firm decision by the UK Government on whether (and how) to amend the proposed Brexit deal. Also, there is still considerable doubt about whether the UK Brexit deal will be approved at Westminster.

Chances are still high that the UK parliament will not be supportive.

An unwelcome no deal Brexit still looms large. Businesses north and south have serious concerns.

For the Irish economy, serious trade disruption may be a consequence. For Northern Ireland, the deterrent effects on business investment will become more conspicuous, the ability to attract inward investment will be reduced and the fears that some industrial investments will move 'south of the border' will be articulated, with serious implications.

Getting rid of the backstop has major implications for future business developments.

Theresa May's good intentions should not be perverse. The concept of frictionless cross-border trade needs to be secured.

If the Brussels talks produce a compromise on timing and enforceability, there may be a more acceptable deal.

Belfast Telegraph