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Why the absence of an Irish “backstop” could trigger a no-deal Brexit

Photo – iStock Jaraslow Kilian

In all honesty, the idea of Brexit and the complexities surrounding the now-imminent European divorce of the U.K. was seldom subject to international media scrutiny to the extent that it has been post-referendum. Then again, Brexit was not expected to come about, as even many amongst the silent majority that voted to leave had only a vague idea what Brexit would entail – cue, the Google searches of ‘what is the EU?’ and ‘what happens if we leave the EU?’ spiking immediately after the results came out.

As the two-year window to enforcement is sauntering to a close next year, thousands of businesses and several industries still remain ill-prepared to meet the consequences of Brexit, primary of which is the freight haulage market that would stand to lose heavily against an impending no-deal Brexit.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has been in the thick of things over the last couple of weeks, winning a decisive vote of confidence at the U.K. parliament, even as freight companies look on at the Brexit negotiations that seem to be spiraling out of control. One of the major issues concerning businesses is that a no-Brexit or a cliff-edge Brexit would lead to incremental border checks on freight passing through the U.K. and the EU, which several reports suggest could lead to never-ending queues at the ports of Felixstowe and Dover, amongst many others.

After many weeks of deliberation over a patchy Brexit deal, May decided to scrap it from going to vote, at the wake of the no-confidence motion that was raised by dismayed Conservative MPs. The cancellation of voting on the deal was possibly because of the castigation it had received in Parliament, including from May’s own party members, which if left for voting might have turned out to be a major cause of embarrassment for the prime minister.

One of the reasons for the deal to be thrown out lay in the detailing of the Irish “backstop” – an insurance policy written into the Brexit agreement that would guarantee an invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Right now, the north and the south Irish lands are separated by a 310-mile border that till date has been without border checks – courtesy of the 1998 Belfast Agreement that helped institutionalize peace by keeping hard borders out for free movement of goods and people.

However, with Brexit, this could no longer be the case as Northern Ireland, being a part of the U.K., would automatically be drawn out of the EU, while the Republic of Ireland would remain in the EU – complicating the scenario. The Irish government has been quite vocal on its stance of not creating a hard border between its territory and Northern Ireland, while the EU is pushing for one, as it believes customs checkpoints are necessary to protect its sovereignty from non-EU states.

The only way out of this though is if Northern Ireland relents and decides to align with EU’s customs union and be a part of the single EU market post-Brexit. But unfortunately, the deciding authority lies with the U.K., which is not particularly keen on splitting parts of the country to suit local interests. This, simply put, is a conundrum, with the Irish backdrop becoming a highly improbable scenario as the days progress.

The May government is now clutching at straws; as if there is no backstop to the Irish predicament, it would likely result in a no-deal Brexit that the freight industry desperately wants to avoid and would lead to the U.K. crashing out of the EU in March 2019 with zero cushioning for the resulting impact.

This opens up the pandora’s box, and what would result is best left to anyone’s guess – with hassles at border checkpoints and trade complexities being obvious complications that the U.K. would have to contend with. Meanwhile, Ireland remains a sitting duck, watching helplessly from the sidelines as a long-drawn burlesque unravels before its eyes and the May government continues to bungle with whatever little could be salvaged from the consequential deal.