In the two years since Article 50 was triggered, the long, arduous process that is Brexit has been whittled down to one complicated term: the backstop. What is it and why is it holding things up?
There are just five weeks to go until Brexit on March 29. The country is hurtling towards a chaotic exit that could leave a dent in Britain and the EU’s economies. British Prime Minister Theresa May is again heading to Brussels for talks on the divorce deal, although EU leaders have refused any renegotiation of the agreement she agreed with them in December.
At the crux of the numerous negotiations is a not-so-little something called the backstop.
So what is the backstop?
The Irish backstop is a safety net - one that guarantees that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Britain leaves the EU - in the event that Britain and the EU fail to reach a full divorce agreement.
A 'hard' border means that there will be physical checkpoints and customs checks between the two states - a stark difference between the invisible one that divides the states now. A backstop would prevent customs and other checks after Brexit on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
It has become a tricky issue to navigate because it is the only land border between the UK and the EU - the Irish Republic being an EU member.
But ‘hard’ Brexiteers are not a fan of the backstop, arguing that it would leave Britain indefinitely tied to some form of an EU customs union. They fear it would trap the country in EU rules indefinitely, undercutting a critical Brexit promise of independent trade policy. It is this intense opposition that has made navigating the Brexit deal so tough for Theresa May - the British parliament voted 432 to 202 against her proposition in January this year.
Why was there a border in the first place?
We need to dive into a bit of history for that.
Friction over British rule in Ireland has existed ever since the British made their presence felt on the island way back in 1167. For Irish Catholics, living alongside the British Protestants was not easy. They were not happy that the British settlers were confiscating their land, nor were they particularly thrilled about the differences in religion.
Resistance to Protestant influence was put down swiftly. When ‘Penal laws’ were passed, slowly stifling rights to education, to the clergy and to bear arms, calls for representation in Westminster grew. Unable to ignore it, London relaxed its grip.
Violence periodically flared as the native Irish rebelled against British rule, but it wasn’t until 1921 that Ireland was split into two states. The Protestants were lumped in under the banner of Northern Ireland and the Catholics under the Republic of Ireland. This did not bode well for either economy, as Conor McCabe wrote for The Atlantic.
“Partition brought disruption to centuries-old trade and supply routes, particularly in agriculture, the dominant form of economic activity on the island at the time,” McCabe wrote.
It was in 1966 that the fragile peace finally broke down, giving birth to a period known as ‘the Troubles’, a period of violence that mostly took place in Belfast. The conflict pitted nationalists, mostly Catholics, who wanted the Northern Ireland province to secede and become part of the Republic of Ireland, against Unionists, mostly Protestants, who wanted it to remain part of the United Kingdom.
On the nationalist side were guerillas like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) while paramilitaries and British law enforcement lent the Unionists military weight.
The violence that erupted was perpetrated by both sides and spanned 30 years. One particularly violent event was ‘Bloody Sunday’ on January 30, 1972, in Londonderry, when a group of British police officers fired on unarmed civilian protesters, killing 14 of them. There were also several instances where the IRA executed attacks on civilians.
By the time the Good Friday agreement was reached in 1998, more than 3,600 lives had been lost.
So, why is the border so crucial?
At stake is the tentative peace between the two nations.
With both states being EU member nations, it was the open border policy that the Good Friday agreement hinged on - without it, the invisible border that the Irish enjoy would not have been possible.
“The EU made an open border practical for both economic and political reasons, and it offered a ready-made roadmap for a peace process,” Jen Kirby wrote for Vox.
The Good Friday agreement dissolved the border between both states. Border posts between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were removed, and a power-sharing structure was put in place to represent both communities.
During the Troubles, this border was heavily militarised and became a symbol of a fractured identity as Jonathan Powell, the UK’s chief negotiator on the Good Friday Agreement, pointed out.
“Having a soft border was crucial because that meant the issue of identity was really removed from the table,” Powell told The Atlantic.
But as the same article notes, keeping the soft Irish border and instead creating a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom would be a disingenuous gaffe. While Northern Ireland voted to remain in the 2016 referendum by 56 percent, they do not want a separate agreement that removes it from the confines of the UK.
Without a Brexit that allows for this peace process to continue - however much of a tentative peace the Good Friday agreement allowed - there are fears that the absence of a backstop could bring down the proverbial house of cards. While violence may not be a natural outcome, a hard border could make things difficult for democratic power sharing.
Are there any alternatives?
If Britain agreed to host European Parliament elections this coming May, it could extend the Article 50 time limit on agreeing on the terms for its exit. This could give it some room to negotiate a new deal with a backstop in place.
It could also impose a time limit on the backstop, working to assuage the fears of hard Brexiters who fear the trap of a permanent customs union. But Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has rejected this.
Another alternative is the 'Malthouse Compromise' - an idea that was designed to help unite pro-EU and Brexit factions in May’s party. The plan forked into two options - the first of which would be based around a zero-tariff free trade agreement instead of a shared customs-based union - a ‘free trade agreement-lite’ if you will. This proposal relies on technical solutions to move checks on goods away from the border.
The second plan was to kick in if Brexit negotiations did not work and involve extending Britain’s transition period out of the EU from the end of 2020 to December 2021. During that time, Britain would keep paying into the EU and guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in Britain.
The problem? The compromise relies on technologies that do not exist - and as a GQ article not so kindly pointed out, is similar to a rejected idea called Maximum Facilitation that former Brexit minister David Davis had already pitched.
And to add insult to injury, the EU has said the current Brexit deal is not up for renegotiation and that there is no credible alternative to the backstop.
Decades later, the Troubles “are so burned into our lives that they are part of our DNA”, Monica McWilliams, a former civil rights marcher, peace activist and feminist leader told the New York Times.
Indeed it is. As Britain and the EU’s D-Day fast approaches, Britain may have to settle for a no-deal Brexit, reneging on decades worth of work searching for a lasting peace.