The UK government has proposed a ‘backstop’ solution for the possibility that there is no long term agreement in place when the UK leaves the EU.
The need for a fallback stems from the challenge of Northern Ireland. The UK has committed to avoiding any hard border between NI and Ireland (as per the Good Friday agreement) whilst also insisting there must be no internal customs border between NI and the rest of the UK. These two seemingly incompatible positions are proving difficult to reconcile, and the technological solutions required will likely take longer than current Brexit timetables allow. This is why the EU has requested a backstop position.
So the UK published a ‘Technical Note’ on Thursday setting out plans for a ‘Temporary Customs Arrangement’ (see link below article). The plan is that the whole of the UK (including Crown dependencies) will continue to apply tariff-free trade with the EU, continue to apply the same external tariffs, and continue to apply the Union Customs Code. This may sound very much like just staying in the customs union, but crucially the UK would be able to negotiate free trade agreements with external partners, although without implementing any aspects that interfere with the customs arrangement. A time limit of December 2021 is set, by which the UK expects a long term arrangement to be in place.
It is important to note that this backstop only addresses customs arrangements, and does not cover the wider regulatory rules of the single market or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. With various issues filed under ‘yet to be agreed’ there is still a long way to go before a full withdrawal agreement is reached – and this is vital to avoid crashing out of the EU come March 2019.
The backstop proposal came in for criticism from EU negotiator Michel Barnier, who was looking for something more specific to Northern Ireland rather than a UK-wide arrangement. In a press conference Barnier said:
“Let me be clear: our backstop cannot be extended to the UK. Why? Because it has been designed for the specific situation of Northern Ireland … Let’s go back to pragmatism.”
The setting of a time limit is also likely to be contentious as there is no guarantee the Irish question will be answered by then.