With just over a month until Brexit, the Irish backstop has proved a pervasive stumbling block to getting a deal through parliament. A politically unsavoury part of May’s withdrawal agreement, the backstop was designed to specifically avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, a desire that is mutual between both Britain and the EU.
This is essential – without a backstop there will be a chaotic border that would be difficult to implement and enforce, not to mention the likelihood of a reversion to violence, as seen before the Good Friday Agreements.
Without a backstop the border would be difficult to implement and enforce
However, a condition of this agreement is that the UK remains restricted from carrying out any other trade deals around the world that involve removing tariffs on goods. Additionally, the UK wouldn’t be able to leave this backstop deal without the permission of the EU. These two points, in particular, are the reason why the backstop became a sticking point among Brexiteers in parliament, and the reason why the government has been forced to find a plan B.
With such different customs regulations on either side of the border post Brexit, what are their alternative plans?
The backstop became a sticking point amongst Brexiteers.
The manner in which border checks are carried out is the main issue at present, as any physical customs checks would cause delays, potentially leading to a chaotic border. The most widely known option is to eliminate the needs for any new border checks entirely. This EU favourite entails treating the Irish border as a combined customs territory. Northern Ireland would have a closer customs relationship with the EU than the rest of the
Yet a potential alternative solution has recently been presented: a border regulated by tech. Philip Hammond has also proposed the use of blockchain technology, with the aim of using a distributed database to streamline the border checks. However, blockchain is regarded as decentralised and immutable, with the only somewhat successful use being as an infrastructure for Bitcoin, which was as effective as an ‘energy-inefficient
dinosaur’ according to economist Nouriel Roubini.
The latest parliamentary discussions have featured speculation over more conventional technological solutions, however, these could take over 10 years to implement according to David Henig, a trade expert who gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the issue earlier this week. Any such solution would not be a question of technology, Henig
advised, but also a matter of legal process, even whilst using established technology.
A potential alternative could be a border regulated by technology.
However, the EU already stated last month that they will not renegotiate the terms of the withdrawal agreement including the backstop. At present, the UK’s only alternatives are to use technology that would not allow for a smooth
Yet Theresa May will still need to get it through parliament, but given how similar the ‘renegotiated’ deal is to the one that was resoundingly defeated on January 11th, commentators are sceptical. It seems that at some point the government might have to stand up to the de
Photo: Giuseppe Milo via Flickr