The news over the past few weeks have made a big thing about how the major sticking point in the Brexit negotiations is the 'backstop' over the Northern Irish border, with both sides, apparently, considering it vital that there is no hard border there (for obvious reasons).

Why, therefore, are both sides so willing to risk a no-deal scenario, which would surely result in a very hard border, as everything would have to be checked under WTO rules?

I can see that the UK govt stance is somewhat hamstrung by half of the Conservative party, but what's stopping the EU side from offering some kind of compromise?

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    What would you consider counts as a compromise? Several possible solutions have been discussed in the media over the last year, many of which are outside the EU's average preferred solution. Since the talks have been in secret, it's impossible to know which have been seriously discussed.
    – origimbo
    Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 18:36
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    Why do you say both sides are willing to risk a no-deal scenario? (Assuming you mean the EU and UK?) The EU is pushing strongly for a deal including a permanent backstop, and Theresa May appears committed to get a deal, even a bad deal or one most of her party doesn't support. Obviously there's no way for one side to guarantee that there is a deal, but as far as I see both sides have been seeking a deal.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 11:19
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    Also, are you sure both sides want to avoid a hard border in NI? It seems that it's mostly the EU side (strongly supported by the ROI) pressing on this.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 15, 2018 at 14:35

2 Answers 2


The central issue here is there are simply no solutions to the Irish border problem that meet the needs both to have a border and to not have a border.

To understand the EU's position we must first remember that the EU is made up of 28 member states that must all agree before a deal can be ratified. We must also remember that one of these states is the Republic of Ireland a country that clearly has strong ties with Northern Ireland (as evidenced by attacks on border posts during the troubles).

The remaining countries which are not directly affected by the border problem but may be concerned about damaging the integrity of the EU itself, thus, ruling out a number of options. They do want to reduce any impact that brexit will have on them however some parts of the EU will be more affected by the EU's integrity than the potential short to medium term effects caused by no deal.

Why would the UK find no deal to be OK? Northern Ireland is only a small part of the UK and the Irish border has little impact on the rest of the UK. Part of the reason this border has been such an issue is that the DUP prop up the government and without these votes the government may not be able to get the deal through parliament (currently the DUP has withdrawn support for the deal due to concerns about the border arrangements)

Meanwhile both sides have to appear to be willing to accept the consequences of no deal otherwise they seem weak and will find it harder to negotiate a deal in their favour both on this issue and in other areas. If it comes to a no deal scenario neither side will have to agree on anything and thus there is a risk of this fallback if the situation is not resolved.

As an additional consideration there is the questionable use of having a border between two countries when neither of those countries really want to have that border after all WTO rules (or other rules) will rely on border infrastructure and enforcement by one or both sides.


The main point is the EU and Ireland have been making is that physical border infrastructure would risk reigniting the conflict in Northern Ireland. Any sort of border checks would also require limiting the border crossing points that remain open to all traffic. The difference between a “hard border” with extensive checks for goods and people and a “soft border” with, say, sanitary checks for livestock isn't as relevant as the difference between “no border checks whatsoever” and “any border check at all”.

From that perspective, it's difficult to see what a compromise on the substance of the backstop could look like. Giving up on it is not a compromise at all, it would amount to hanging Ireland out to dry in the name of broader economic interests. But the EU did compromise in that it offered to let the UK remain in the customs union if need be (to limit the checks required between Northern Ireland and Great Britain) and to create some bilateral committee with some neutral members to decide on the backstop (to avoid the impression the EU is pulling the strings alone).

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