The “backstop” would have required northern Ireland to remain in certain aspects of the internal market until an alternative agreement between the EU and the UK is concluded. The proposal also provided that the UK as a whole would have a common customs territory with the EU until a solution was found to avoid the need for customs controls in the UK (between Northern Ireland and Great Britain). The “backstop” element was that if the UK and the EU did not agree on another agreement, for example on a trade agreement between the UK and the EU at the end of the transition period, the agreement could continue to apply indefinitely. In other words, the UK could not withdraw from the Irish backstop if the EU felt that any alternative solution would not work. In October 2019, the new Johnson government renegotiated the project and replaced the backstop. Under the new protocol, the whole of the UK leaves the EU customs union as a single customs territory. Northern Ireland will be included in the UK`s future trade agreements, but will not have tariffs or restrictions on goods crossing the Irish border in both directions, creating a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea with Britain. There is also a unilateral exit mechanism for the Northern Ireland Assembly to leave the protocol by a simple majority.    This new protocol has been described as “Chequers for Northern Ireland” by some, as it is comparable to the British plan for future relations of Theresa May`s Chequers, previously rejected by the EU and criticised by Johnson.  In practice, this meant that the United Kingdom could not unilaterally leave the backstop, in a scenario where a deadlock had been reached between the United Kingdom and the EU, not by a proven failure of either side, but simply because of “intractable differences”. The Irish backstop has been highly controversial among some MEPs and is one of the main reasons why the withdrawal agreement has not yet been adopted by Parliament. New Prime Minister Boris Johnson now says the backstop is “dead.” The rest of this piece explains how the political situation around the backstop has evolved over time and why the Irish border is an important subject.
What is the big picture behind the Brexit backstop drama? Since this article was originally published in October 2018, the political situation around the backstop has changed. This is a summary of the main developments: new Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week declared “death” both the “backstop” agreement and the withdrawal. The EU and the UK should do everything in their power to agree by 31 December 2020 on a future relationship that would take over from the backstop rules in Northern Ireland while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. It has been envisaged to solve all or part of the backstop of Northern Ireland, so that this is a single stop of Northern Ireland. In March 2019, the UK government and the EU agreed on an additional “instrument” to address these concerns. The backstop is part of the draft withdrawal agreement negotiated between Theresa May`s government and the EU. On the merits, the fact that the region would remain de jure in the British customs union ensures that it has access to the free trade agreements that the United Kingdom will conclude. Putting aside the bureaucratic and administrative costs to which Businesses in Northern Ireland will be exposed, the province`s agreement provides the best of both worlds. In April 2019, a report commissioned by the German Greens concluded that the backstop could allow the UK to undermine EU standards on the environment, consumption and work due to a lack of sufficiently detailed controls.  On 2 October, Johnson presented a possible replacement of the Irish backstop 2018 and proposed that Northern Ireland remain in the EU, but on the customs territory of the United Kingdom.