A key part of the Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and EU is the so-called Irish Backstop, the guarantee that Northern Ireland will remain in a customs union with the EU until both sides agree on alternative arrangements that will keep the border open and free of physical infrastructure.

This is deeply unpopular in the Westminster Parliament and the main reason that the Withdrawal Agreement could not be passed. A counter proposal is to add a time limit to the backstop, but the EU has rejected this.

Is there any point to having a backstop with a time limit, from the EU's point of view? I can't see any benefit at all.

  • There is a point, a limited point but still better than nothing. Low benefit doesn't mean no benefit at all. Just means not much. Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 18:35
  • @Trilarion maybe you could articulate what that point is.
    – user
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 8:00
  • The backstop is an insurance and even a time-limited insurance should have a value bigger than no insurance at all. This general argument is hardly worth an answer because I feel I could not realistically say how much the worth would be in this case. Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 8:09
  • @Trilarion assuming you didn't trust the UK to not just wait out the time limit, taking advantage of the temporary backstop to get other trade deals in place rather than trying to find a proper fix, it seems like agreeing would actually be worse for the EU. Better to let the UK crash out, and then force it to agree to an unlimited backstop when it's weak and desperate for a trade deal with its biggest market.
    – user
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 10:43
  • Ignore for one moment, all the politics surrounding this, and simply address the question "Is there any point in a backstop with a time limit?". Of course there isn't. All of us insure our homes against fire - that is our backstop in case the worst happens. If the house burns down an insurance company will cough up the money to rebuild it. But let's say that in an effort to get a reduction in premium, I agree to a time limit on the policy. So it is insured for now, but if the fire happens after October the insurers will not be liable. What on earth use is that?
    – WS2
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 22:39

2 Answers 2


A backstop with a time limit puts the Good Friday Agreement at risk if trade negotiations between the UK and the EU break down, which defeats the purpose of having a backstop to begin with. So there is no point whatsoever from the EU's viewpoint.

If you'll allow me to guess where this might end up heading: rather than a temporary backstop for the UK as a whole, Johnson might get away with negotiating a temporary backstop (or no backstop at all) for Great Britain - while leaving Northern Ireland in a permanent backstop situation. That, I could easily see the EU live with, because the EU initially proposed that the backstop apply to NI only. It was on May's insistence that the whole of the UK should be covered instead. Whether Johnson might be able to sell that to the DUP or opposition MPs is another story entirely, but it's a scenario that's worth considering IMO.

  • 1
    I can't see BoJo selling that. The DUP obviously won't go for it, and the opposition will use that opportunity to have a vote of no confidence.
    – user
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 12:53
  • 2
    @user: Might be. Side note: the bets over at the Guardian (Brexit Means and Politics Weekly podcasts) are that Johnson will organize snap elections in short order. At this point I think it's really anyone's guess what ends up happening. :D Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 12:57
  • @DenisdeBernardy probably no snap elections though. That'd be a major loss for the Conservative party as they'd lose to LibDems and Brexit party candidates leaving the country ungovernable (too many opposing views to come to any consensus) while the clock keeps ticking.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 23:02
  • @JJJ: That's what I've been assuming all along too. But I found it intriguing. The gist of the argument that they and their guests were putting forward was to take advantage of the early post-electoral euphoria (assuming any) -- "Last call for Brexit. Give me a proper mandate," if you will. Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 2:40
  • 1
    @DenisdeBernardy that seems very familiar, remind you of anyone?
    – JJJ
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 7:09

The backstop is supposed to kick in if the two sides cannot come to any better agreement, and to protect the people on both sides of the border from the drastic consequences of a "no deal" situation. So it would be silly to have a short backstop, on the order of a few years. The negotiators could just try to wait it out.

On the other hand, contracts for eternity can be awkward as well. So it might make sense to agree on a backstop for 30 years ("one generation") or 99 years ("not quite a century") instead.

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