Briefing: The Government’s New Backstop Proposal


The Government has today published its new plan for the Brexit backstop. The plan would effectively keep the UK in the Customs Union (but not the Single Market) after the transition ends in December 2020. The plan says the Government "expects" the backstop to only last for 12 months at most (until December 2021), but it does not say who would decide when it ends.

Top Lines

  • This fudged document doesn't engage with any of the key Brexit dilemmas and is highly unlikely to lead to anything but more gridlock in the ongoing talks with the EU.
  • The new proposal suggests a time-limit, which has already been categorically rejected by the EU, and wouldn't prevent a return to a hard border in Northern Ireland anyway.
  • With the crucial June EU Council just three weeks away, time is running out for the Government to come up with a serious proposal.
  • The Government’s shambolic approach to the Brexit talks, and Ministers' endless infighting, only serve to underline why we need a People's Vote on the final Brexit deal.


Four Problems with the Proposal

  1. The EU has already rejected the idea of a time limited agreement. The EU has been very clear that it will reject any proposal that is time limited: “It will apply for as long as there is no credible alternative. It can’t be time limited or it’s not a backstop.”[1] And today Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, has re-stated this, saying: “It is not something that can be just time limited."[2]
  2. It would only keep the UK in the Customs Union, not the Single Market. The EU has been clear, and Michel Barnier has re-stated this afternoon, that any backstop agreement must respect the integrity of the Single Market. But rather than setting out an approach to regulatory standards, the Government’s plan says only that this “will also need to be addressed”. 
  3. The Government’s claim that it will be able to implement free trade deals during this period doesn’t stack up. The proposal says the UK should be able to “ratify free trade agreements (FTAs) with rest of world partners and implement those elements that do not affect the functioning of the temporary customs arrangement.” But there is no detail as to what ‘elements’ of a trade agreement would not impact on the arrangement.
  4. The proposal wouldn’t come close to avoiding a customs cliff-edge. The Government’s two long-term customs proposals (‘Max Fac’ and a ‘customs partnership’) have been rejected by the EU and would in any case not be ready by the backstop’s December 2021 deadline. HMRC’s Jon Thompson has said the ‘Max Fac’ option, supposedly the preferred option in Government, would take at least five years before being ready, and would then cost businesses £20 billion a year.