N. Ireland Politics

Brexit: What are the backstop options?

Image of the Belfast to Dublin motorway Image copyright Getty Images

A key part of the Brexit negotiations has been the border that separates Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The border is a matter of great political, security and diplomatic sensitivity in Ireland.

Therefore the UK and EU agreed that whatever happens as a result of Brexit there should be no new physical checks or infrastructure at the frontier.

This is where the controversial "backstop" comes in.

Why might the backstop be needed?

At present, goods and services are traded between the two jurisdictions with few restrictions.

That is because the UK and Ireland are part of the EU's single market and customs union, so products do not need to be inspected for customs or standards.

But after Brexit, all that could change - the two parts of Ireland could be in different customs and regulatory regimes, which could mean products being checked at the border.

The preference of both sides is to prevent this happening through a deep and comprehensive trade deal.

However, the UK's red lines, which include leaving the customs union and the single market, could make that very difficult.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionConfused by Brexit jargon? Reality Check unpacks the basics.

And if both sides couldn't reach agreement on a deal keeping the border as open as it is now - that's where the backstop would come in.

So how might it it work? There are several options:

A Northern Ireland only backstop?

This is what the EU originally proposed.

It would involve Northern Ireland alone remaining in the EU's single market and customs union, leaving Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) free to strike trade deals.

But the DUP - a Northern Ireland unionist party that propped up Theresa May's minority Conservative government - objected to this.

It said it would see Northern Ireland treated differently and could threaten the union.

A UK-wide backstop?

After the DUP's objections, Mrs May agreed a backstop involving the whole of the UK retaining a very close relationship with the EU - staying in the customs union - for an indefinite period.

It would also see Northern Ireland staying even more closely tied to some rules of the EU single market.

These arrangements would apply unless and until both the EU and UK agree they are no longer necessary.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionWould you notice if you crossed the Irish border?

What are the Brexit backstop options?

The backstop would not apply if the UK left the EU without a deal but the potential problems with the border would remain.

Opposition to the backstop

The backstop plan was agreed by UK-EU negotiators and formed part of Theresa May's withdrawal agreement in November 2018 (often referred to as the Brexit "divorce deal").

It sparked a backlash from many Conservative MPs (and the DUP) at Westminster and several of her own ministers resigned in protest.

Please upgrade your browser

They feared that the backstop would be used to permanently trap the UK in the EU customs union, preventing the country from striking its own trade deals.

In March 2019, the EU and UK agreed a joint interpretation of the backstop, clarifying the earlier deal.

It explained the ways in which the UK could start a "formal dispute" against the EU, if it tried to keep the UK tied into the backstop indefinitely.

This was intended to help Theresa May win parliamentary support for the backstop.

But her deal was voted down three times, leading to her resignation.

An alternative plan?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he is committed to "getting rid" of the backstop, describing it as "anti-democratic".

The UK government has floated the idea of a single zone on the island of Ireland for food standards.

The EU has a strict rule that products from a non-member state must be checked at the point of entry.

And many trade experts suggest the only way to prevent those checks at the Irish border would be for the two parts of the island to have the same standards.

In effect, that would mean Northern Ireland would have to continue to follow EU standards.

And that would mean some food products coming from elsewhere in the UK would be subject to new checks and controls at Northern Ireland ports.

In fact, the island of Ireland is already a single zone for animal health, which means all livestock coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain is checked on entry.

The DUP has not ruled out a single food standards zone.

But the Irish government is sceptical about the proposal.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said: "It's not enough on its own.

"We would need a single Irish economic zone, or whatever you would like to call it, to cover more than agriculture and food."

Alternative arrangements

Many Brexit supporters say what are known as "alternative arrangements" could be used to avoid checks at the border.

The phrase is normally used to refer to technical or technological solutions.

These include things like trusted traders schemes and using GPS to track lorries.

The prime minister seems to be suggesting that these would work alongside an-all Ireland food standards zone.

The EU has committed to working on alternative arrangements but has said no systems which could solve the border problem are currently "operational".

More on this story