May’s Brexit Customs Backstop is Pure Farce


Today, the UK published its backstop plan for trade with the EU after Brexit. This plan would be the fall-back if a full agreement cannot be reached in time. Yet just about nobody is happy with it.

Why is the backstop such a big deal? Well, it could end up dictating the future of Northern Ireland. The plan would see the UK match EU trade tariffs to avoid a hard border in Ireland. Naturally Brexiteers are unhappy about this arrangement, which would leave the UK taking rules from Brussels.

It is recognised on both sides, though, that some form of emergency arrangement must be in place. So David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, requested that the backstop be time limited. The idea was that this ensures the UK does not remain a rule-taker indefinitely on trade. The problem with this is that the EU is less likely to be happy with a time limited proposal.

In the end, the issue has been fudged. This should be no surprise as it has been the theme of resolutions to Brexit issues which have been controversial in the Cabinet. The wording of the plan refers to the idea that the backstop ‘should’ end by a certain date. There is mention that the UK ‘expects’ this to be the case.

The problem? This plan is meant to be the basis for legal documents. Words like ‘should’ and ‘expects’ mean little to nothing in a legal context. Sources on both sides are keen to paint this as a victory for their side, but in reality, it represents failure for each.

Davis and the Brexiteers say that they have secured a limit on time, yet this limit is in effect useless.

May and the Remainers say they have avoided a hard limit, yet this will still be offensive to the EU. It is incredibly unlikely that the EU’s negotiating team will accept any form of time limit in the backstop arrangement. All they have to do is reject the idea and the UK is back to square one.

The root of issue is of course the customs backstop itself in the first place. It effectively tells Barnier and the EU that should they refuse to give the UK a deal on trade that is desirable to the UK, then the UK will remain little more than a vassal state of the EU. This suits them just fine, and us not at all.

There are two theories for the reasoning behind the backstop. The first and most popular within the Brexiteer ranks is that May and the Civil Service, primarily Olly Robbins are secretly attempting to ensure that the UK remains a member of the EU in all but name – Brexit in name only. The other is sheer incompetence. Given the performance of the government over Brexit so far, the latter cannot be ruled out.

Either way, the customs backstop arrangement is farcical. The only way to achieve a good deal at the end of the negotiation is to retain leverage, and this backstop instantly throws away all that the UK has.


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