After the existing deal was heavily defeated in the House of Commons, MPs backed a move to seek “alternative arrangements” to the primary source of the discontent in the existing deal: the controversial Irish backstop.
The response from the European Union has been uncompromising. Several EU leaders have made it clear the withdrawal agreement – negotiated over the best part of two years and signed off by May herself and governments from the other 27 EU countries – cannot be re-opened.
Brussels and Dublin insist the planned mechanism must remain part of the treaty – to avoid a hard land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and preserve the Good Friday peace agreement. Eurosceptics say it risks splitting Northern Ireland from Britain, and compromises UK independence from the EU.
Under the backstop, the UK would remain in a customs union with the EU in the absence of a trade deal, and Northern Ireland would stay aligned to some EU rules. The premise is that the UK’s desire to leave the EU’s single market and customs union would otherwise require checks and controls as the two sides diverged.
Below are some alternative suggestions to the backstop being put forward. Theresa May has cited several, in her bid for “a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement”.
A UK-EU customs union
This is the preferred option of the UK’s main opposition Labour Party. However, Theresa May has been reluctant to pursue cross-party support for a “soft Brexit” that could split her own party.
A unilateral exit mechanism
The withdrawal agreement prevents the UK from leaving the backstop unilaterally. To do so, either side would have to go to a Joint Committee which can consult joint UK-Ireland institutions.
Brexiteers have always hated this, as the UK could not leave the backstop without EU approval. They argue this compromises UK independence and want the country to be able to leave of its own accord.
A time-limited backstop
Critics of the withdrawal agreement also loathe the fact that the backstop is open-ended. They say this could lead to indefinite customs union membership.
In January Poland’s foreign minister broke ranks with the rest of the EU by suggesting a five-year limit to the backstop.
After MPs voted to seek a new deal, Theresa May told parliament that “alternative arrangements” might include “a unilateral exit mechanism or a time limit to the backstop”.
Brussels has long argued that such proposals mean the backstop would fail in its essential mission as an insurance policy.
The Malthouse Compromise
An “extendable backstop” would see Northern Ireland treated on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom, and allow the UK to set its own tariffs and regulations. Technology would mean checks and formalities could take place away from the Irish border, ensuring an open frontier.
The "Max Fac" model – also a Brexiteer favourite – was considered but rejected by the British government during the negotiations. New technology and customs procedures involving “trusted trader” schemes and numberplate recognition would be used instead of border checks.
The EU has said that technology is untried and untested. It could be considered – a kind of backup to the backstop – but the whole point of a backstop is that it is a cast-iron guarantee in all circumstances.
A customs association
A report by the think-tank EconPol Europe calls for the UK and EU to drop the backstop and work towards an ambitious customs union, to avoid a damaging hard Brexit.
It calls on both sides to drop their “red lines” and create a new European Customs Association (ECA) under which neither the EU nor the UK could pursue independent trade policies.
Possible EU proposals
Although Brussels is playing hardball at the moment, the Financial Times has reported that alternative options are being worked on behind the scenes. The aim is to rescue the Brexit deal without overturning its core substance.
Ideas under consideration reportedly include:
- A road map to establish “alternative arrangements” to the backstop – or a menu of options attached to the withdrawal treaty.
- Elaborating on plans to ultimately replace the backstop with alternative arrangements. This could include an explanation of how technology could be tested to maintain an open border.
- A backstop covering only Northern Ireland, not the whole of the UK. The proposed UK-EU customs union would be replaced and listed among possible “alternative arrangements” to replace the Northern Ireland-only version.
Could the EU accept any of the above?
Some of these proposals have already been categorically ruled out by Brussels. A source from the EU’s negotiating team told Euronews it was difficult to envisage any solution that could get a majority in the British parliament.
There is also a feeling, particularly in Ireland, that many politicians in Britain underestimate the backstop’s importance. Some commentators – for instance in The Guardian and the Financial Times – have pointed out that it is vital to preserve peace in a region blighted by violence in the past.
However, the EU is also anxious to avoid a no-deal Brexit and some observers believe that despite its intransigent stance now, Brussels will examine all options to rescue the agreement.