What is the Brexit backstop and why is it the key to Theresa May passing a deal?

Simon Dawson – WPA Pool/Getty ImagesBritain’s Prime Minister Theresa May
  • Theresa May travelled to Belfast on Tuesday, where she pledged to “find a way to deliver Brexit that honours our commitments to Northern Ireland.”
  • The prime minister will ask the EU to remove the Irish backstop in a bid to keep the Conservative and DUP parties on board with her plans.
  • But the EU has signalled that it will not remove re-open the UK-EU withdrawal agreement.
  • Here’s what you need to know about the backstop.

LONDON – Theresa May travelled to Belfast on Tuesday to reassure the people of Northern Ireland that she will deliver a Brexit deal that prevents a hard border with Northern Ireland.

In a speech delivered to Northern Irish business leaders, the prime minister said that the UK “will find a way to deliver Brexit that honours our commitments to Northern Ireland … that commands broad support across the community in Northern Ireland … and that secures a majority in the Westminster parliament.”

However, in order to achieve this she will need to win over a majority of MPs in the UK House of Commons to her deal and she believes that will require changes to the controversial “Irish backstop,” a policy which was largely responsible for the historic parliamentary defeat of her plan in January.

So what is the Brexit backstop and why is it the key to unlocking Brexit talks?

What is the Irish backstop?

Theresa May Arlene FosterClodagh Kilcoyne – WPA Pool/Getty ImagesUK Prime Minister Theresa May and DUP leader Arlene Foster

The Irish backstop – or Northern Ireland protocol – is an insurance policy contained in the UK-EU withdrawal agreement designed to ensure that the Irish border remains frictionless after Brexit in all circumstances.

The policy would mean the UK remains in a customs union with the EU “unless and until” “alternative arrangements” – potentially in the form of a free trade deal – are identified which can avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland once the transition period ends in December 2020.

It would also mean that Northern Ireland remains in parts of the EU’s single market as a means of ensuring that goods flow freely across the Irish border.

Why do so many MPs oppose the Irish backstop?

Theresa May’s Brexit deal suffered was defeated by a historic margin of 230 votes in January, and many of the Conservative MPs who voted against the prime minister’s deal did so specifically because of their opposition to the backstop.

Those MPs oppose it for two main reasons.

Firstly, the UK would have no means of unilaterally exiting the arrangement, meaning the EU could keep the UK bound permanently within its customs union.

Secondly, the system would create the need for extra checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, something opponents say would undermine the integrity of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up Theresa May’s minority government through a confidence-and-supply agreement, also opposes the backstop on those grounds.

Why does Theresa May want to amend the Irish backstop?


Theresa May and a team of UK negotiators were the architects of the backstop, something the EU has been at pains to point out.

But large-scale opposition to the backstop forced Theresa May to try and change tack. Rather than try and seek cross-party consensus, the prime minister opted to try and court Tory MPs who had opposed her deal by pledging to replace the backstop.

She secured a narrow parliamentary margin for that plan in a vote in late January, persuading MPs to vote for a deal which would seek to replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements.”

Will May succeed in replacing the backstop?

Short answer: No.

It’s not clear exactly what concessions Theresa May hopes she might secure from Brussels.

While the amendment she persuaded MPs to support specified that the prime minister should seek to “replace the backstop” with “alternative arrangements,” the prime minister suggested in her speech on Tuesday that the backstop would remain in some form, telling business leaders: “I’m not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that does not contain that insurance policy for the future.”

The EU has repeatedly said that it has no plans to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement. If it does, it would not be to remove the backstop.

May is due to travel to Brussels on Thursday where she can expect to be told face-to-face that the UK-EU Brexit agreement isn’t open for renegotiation.

This is because the much-lauded “alternative arrangements” do not appear to exist in any concrete form yet.

The EU’s deputy chief Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand said last week: “We’re not wedded to our backstop. We’re open to alternative suggestions from UK. The problem is there weren’t any.

“Negotiators haven’t been able to explain them to us. That’s not their fault, it’s because they don’t exist.”

And while the withdrawal agreement notes a specific commitment to implement alternative arrangements, the backstop is designed to act as an insurance policy in case those changes aren’t ready to be implemented.

So what’s Theresa May’s plan?

Theresa MayGetty

Some MPs believe that Theresa May is playing a strategic game that goes like this.

The prime minister will go to Brussels and ask for the backstop to be removed.

When the EU refuses, she can tell Eurosceptics in her party that she tried. Doing so may well have avoided an immediate split within her party.

In the meantime, she has bought herself a few more weeks.

As the clock ticks down towards March 29 – when the UK is scheduled to leave the EU – growing numbers of MPs who voted against her deal in January grow more concerned about the prospect of a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

Then, with only weeks to go until the UK leaves the EU, parliament eventually decides to vote for her deal.

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