Brexit deal hinges on Irish border ‘backstop’ debate

Sunday February 10 2019

Pro-Brexit protesters hold up placards as they demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on January 29, 2019. Opinions vary wildly between holding a second referendum to remain within the European single market and sever all ties and leave entirely. PHOTO | TOLGA AKMEN | AFP


After Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the European Union was resoundingly defeated in the House of Commons last month, the British prime minister has since seen off a vote of no-confidence and passed an amendment to her deal which could secure a parliamentary majority.

Proposed by Conservative MP Graham Brady, “the Brady amendment” seeks to do away with an arrangement known as the “backstop,” which in the event of a no-deal Brexit prevents a hard border between UK-affiliated Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU.

This hard border is undesired by all due to fears that it may interrupt the delicate peace process existing on the Irish mainland since 1998, after near three decades of conflict.

In an effort to prevent a hard border, Ms May’s backstop deal proposes that Northern Ireland will remain temporarily pegged to the European customs union until 2020, and permanently thereafter if no workable arrangement is reached.

Brady’s amendment was to seek “alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border” which is the deal the Prime Minister carried to EU headquarters in Brussels this past week in an attempt to barter a slightly modified withdrawal agreement — which she hopes will then be supported by lawmakers in London — before the UK’s scheduled departure from Europe on March 29.

The reception awaiting Ms May on Thursday was frosty, to say the least.


Before her meetings with the European Commission president and the European Council president, heavyweight European leaders had already voiced their aversion to an amendment.

“It is the best accord possible,” said French President Emmanuel Macron. “It is not renegotiable.”

The withdrawal agreement had been thrashed out over the majority of last year, and many are unwilling to return to the negotiating table.

Any amendment will require signatures from each of the EU’s 27-member states.


Still, Ms May told her ministers the objective was to find a legally binding way to ensure the UK could not be trapped indefinitely in the “backstop,” through one of three options: alternative technological arrangements, a time-limit or a unilateral exit mechanism.

The prime minister’s visit came to an end with both sides agreeing to “continue discussions” but neither budging on their original positions.

Even if the EU agrees to amend the withdrawal agreement, the Prime Minister still faces considerable opposition in Westminster.

Earlier this week a group of MPs met with European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker’s aide Martin Selmayr to discuss May’s upcoming trip to Brussels, and were unable to offer a clear response as to whether they would back her deal even if Europe agreed to an amendment.

Opinions vary wildly between the broadly Labour-backed proposal of holding a second referendum to back-pedal on Brexit and remain within the European single market, to the mostly extreme-Tory proposition of a “hard Brexit,” which aims to sever all ties and leave entirely.

For these reasons, many fear the UK is heading for a no-deal Brexit.

In an effort to calm businesses who are increasingly fearful of a no-deal Brexit, UK International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, said: “We would be able to deal with that scenario but it wouldn't be in our interest to go there.”

European Council President Donald Tusk adopted a graver tone on Wednesday, slamming what looks like the lead-up to a no-deal by saying there is a “special place in hell” reserved for those who prompted Brexit without having any idea of how to see it through.