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As explained in this article in The Guardian,

Boris Johnson has written to the EU suggesting the backstop could be replaced by some form of commitment to prevent a hard Irish border in his first major move to explain the UK government’s new position to Brussels.

As far as I have understood from other sources, the backstop is not the first choice of a solution to the border of Ireland, but a fall-back option to be used after no other solution has been found.

In the letter sent by Boris Johnson, included in above article, the British Prime Minister writes:

This Government will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect and hope that the EU would do likewise.

Since the backstop was not intended as the first solution anyway but merely as a fall back option, and since the PM in above letter promises to not to erect any border infrastructure, what is the improvement gained by replacing the backstop with a "legally binding commitment"?

  • Related; Unilateral Withdrawl – Jontia Aug 20 at 16:05
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    It's not clear the UK government is seriously attempting a negotiation currently. It's possible that it is simply preparing politically for a general election and so the communication that is supposedly with the EU is really just part of normal electioneering for a domestic audience. Remember their greatest fear is losing votes to the Brexit Party . – Anush Aug 20 at 17:53
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Read the wording very carefully.

This Government will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect and hope that the EU would do likewise

However, that does not say that the regulatory regimes will remain the same north and south of the border! It seems that changing the applicable law for agriculture is part of the plan, presumably as part of a trade deal with the US. That is the improvement Johnson wants, to be free to negotiate a US-UK agreement in which the UK agrees to the lowered US agricultural health standard.

The UK is not worried about products from the EU being smuggled into the UK. The EU is, however, worried about products from the US being smuggled into the EU through a "laundering" process where they claim to have been produced in Northern Ireland.

So in order to maintain the integrity of the single market Ireland may find it necessary to put in place infrastructure at the border. This is particularly upsetting to Ireland which only gave up its formal claim to sovereignty over the whole island in 1998, deleting the old article 2 to its constitution: "The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas." as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

Reinstating the border, from either side, is both impractical and likely to lead to more violence.

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    Also note that it says "this government", because it can't bind future governments to the commitment. So all it needs is an election or a change of leader and the agreement can be torn up. – user Aug 20 at 15:55
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    Wow, that's sneaky. It plays right into the answer on a previous question that points out that he's trying to reframe this as the EU being unreasonable. "We're fine without enforcing anything, so if you want to do so, then you've got all the responsibility for figuring out how and the blame for doing so." – Bobson Aug 20 at 16:41
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    Framing the EU as unreasonable has been a running theme. They're being pre-blamed for food and medicine shortages in the Tory press. – pjc50 Aug 20 at 17:52
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    "The UK is not worried about products from the EU being smuggled into the UK." I wonder why this is so? Snuggling can always go both ways can't it? Could it be that this idea is just a bad one altogether? – Trilarion Aug 20 at 20:37
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    @Trilarion Smuggling depends on being able to extract profit by exploiting policy differences over the border. The EU is worried about their goods being undercut by ones produced elsewhere that were able to be produced more cheaply because they don't meet the standards the EU requires. If the UK is currently planning to diverge from EU regulations only by relaxing standards, then they wouldn't be particularly worried about more-expensive goods that meet standards that aren't required being smuggled over the border. – Ben Aug 21 at 2:01
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As noted elsewhere in that article, the Conservative political objections to the backstop as defined in the draft Withdrawal agreement are that that it would require Northern Ireland to essentially remain within the European Single Market with the rest of the UK in the Customs Union, and that the UK couldn't unilaterally decide to leave it. In principle an alternative binding agreement could drop those requirements and just say something like "we promise we won't introduce border controls unless we really need to, or unless we give 10 years notice".

Of course, this might lead to further difficulties due to incompatibilities with the UK's other international commitments, and is probably unacceptable to the EU as a whole, but if accepted, would move the problem further down the line, and give opportunities for technical and political developments to change the scope of the problem.

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