In her statement to Parliament, Theresa May stated that the EU wanted a backstop to the backstop. What does she mean by that?

If I understand correctly, the backstop is a fallback position for customs and regulatory arrangements in Northern Ireland, if the UK/EU negotiations fail to reach agreement during the transition phase defined in the Withdrawal Agreement.

With this primary backstop in place, can the UK continue to unilaterally decide the future for Northern Ireland if talks break down during the transition period?

  • 1
    "can the UK continue to unilaterally decide the future for Northern Ireland". This isn't even the case now. The GFA has a clause of self-determination for "the people of the island of Ireland alone". See point (ii) of article 1 of the annex of the linked pdf.
    – JJJ
    Oct 16, 2018 at 13:10
  • 4
    Since this is about the UK, it's worth mentioning that "backstop" is a recognized fielding position in cricket, but it is completely unnecessary if the wicket-keeper (a specialist fielding position) is competent, and it is only ever actually used in games played by children. A "backstop to the backstop" would be ridiculous, even if the game was being played by a bunch of 7-year-olds. The subtext of Theresa May's statement is clear enough ;)
    – alephzero
    Oct 16, 2018 at 14:46

2 Answers 2


The argument is over how long this "backstop" situation might continue. In theory it is meant to be temporary, but temporary political fixes have a way of becoming permanent. Hence the fear is that Northern Ireland will become a de-facto part of the Republic. The UK will have control of income tax, criminal law and policing, but the economy, including VAT and other duties, will be effectively under EU control and trade in general will be be pushed even more towards the Republic as all the border controls will be across the Irish Sea.

Therefore the UK, unable to avoid agreeing to some kind of temporary backstop, is trying to make sure that there is some hard time limit on it. The EU is refusing to accept this because they don't want to see border controls ever applied across the current Northern Ireland border (where you can currently just drive across without even slowing down). It is this rejection of a time limit on the backstop that Theresa may is calling a "backstop to the backstop".


The original backstop was an agreement to keep either all or part of the UK in the EU customs union until a solution was found for the Irish border. The UK agreed to this in principal but now the details must be agreed.

The UK wants a time limit on the backstop agreement, so that if a solution is not found it will expire eventually. That will prevent the UK getting stuck in the EU customs union forever because the EU doesn't accept the proposed Irish border solution.

The EU is naturally worried that this would allow the UK to simply wait for the backstop to expire. As such the EU is requiring a backstop to the backstop, an agreement on what happens if he backstop expires.

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