In January, MPs instructed the Prime Minister to seek ‘alternative arrangements’ to the controversial Irish backstop. Senior EU officials immediately shot down any prospect of any changes to the backstop, insisting that it is an ‘insurance policy’. However, the Prime Minister did get agreement from the EU to ‘reopen talks’ this week.
What are the ‘alternative arrangements’?
One solution gaining traction in Whitehall is the use of ‘technological solutions’ in the event of a no deal – we know that the government is considering at least two proposals made by private companies, which have been leaked to the press. These detailed proposals include online customs pre-payment systems, tracking numbers for vehicles on designated routes and even tracking chips for individual packages.
Another is the so called ‘Malthouse Compromise’ – the key feature of this cross-party proposal is that the UK should be given a clear exit date from the insurance policy. This addresses many MPs’ concerns that the UK may be indefinitely locked into the backstop arrangement, unable to leave until the EU agrees.
What does the EU think?
The EU does not look set to budge on the backstop – as far as they’re concerned, the backstop must be agreed before any discussions can take place regarding a proper future relationship.
The EU has agreed to reopen talks. The PM will want to talk about the backstop, but the EU are only willing to discuss the ‘political declaration’ – a non-binding document which sets out a general framework for what the future relationship might look like. The EU see the political declaration as a way of providing assurances to British MPs, but many will not be satisfied until such assurances are reiterated in a legally binding document.
The PM ends this week in Dublin for talks with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. Mr Varadkar has said that he is open for further discussions but was clear that the Irish government is committed to the backstop.
Mrs May will hope that she can achieve some changes before the 14th February, when MPs have been promised more parliamentary time to debate Brexit.