The "backstop" is a part of the Brexit agreement that EU negotiated with British Prime Minister May. It is a fallback option to be enforced only if no solution is found for the border issue between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

In this article titled "Merkel Didn't Give Johnson 30 Days to Fix Brexit" the author writes

The U.K. has been told time and time again that as soon as a workable solution is found to the problem of the Irish border, the backstop won’t be necessary.

Also as far as I understand (but I could be wrong) the backstop would not keep the entire U.K. tied to many of the EU’s customs and trading rules. It could, however, keep Northern Ireland tied to those rules (maybe similar to what might happen to Gibraltar?).

But according to this article, titled "Brexit: Emmanuel Macron tells Boris Johnson the EU will not tear up May deal", Boris Johnson said that

“She [Mrs Merkel] said if we can do this in two years then we can do this in 30 days and I admire that ‘can-do’ spirit that she seemed to have and I think she is right. I think that the technical solutions are readily available and they have been discussed at great length.

“You can have trusted-trader schemes, you can have electronic pre-clearing for goods moving across the border and I just want to repeat one crucial thing, under no circumstances will the UK be putting checks at the frontier.

And this article, titled "U.K.’s Johnson Plays Down Hopes of Quick Brexit Deal With EU", says about Boris Johnson

On Friday, the U.K. leader repeated his view that there were “lots of ways” to achieve a frictionless border. “But to persuade our EU friends and partners, who are very, very, very hard over against it, will take some time,” he said.

So according to Boris Johnson, it seems, there are options that don't require a border. If that is the case then the backstop would automatically be a non-issue and getting stuck on it is inconsistent with these claims.

Based on these factors, why is the U.K. so keen to have the backstop removed?

6 Answers 6


The problem stems from three issues. I'll explain those, then the backstop issue will be more obvious.

  1. Brexit will create two sovereign regions, with (over time) different borders and import rules. This is the express intent of Brexit after all.

  2. Where two sovereign regions meet, there needs to be some kind of formal controls over goods and people crossing the line between them, to ensure that the rules of each are met. Obvious again. Otherwise you couldn't keep out defective goods, dangerous/illegal people, or collect required taxes or similar.

  3. There is no good place to draw that line, in the Brexit process. Putting it between Northern Ireland and the EU (Eire) breaks or imperils a major and sensitive peace agreement. Putting it between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK fragments the UK and breaks the UK's (informal?) constitution.

So this is the problem. The UK wants to leave. Leaving requires a UK-EU border line. Nobody can figure how to solve the problem of creating one, without blowing up either the Irish peace agreement or UK unity.

The solution was – as often in politics – to kick the issue into the future. "We will figure this out in depth later". But in case it couldn't be figured out, or "later" took a long time, the agreement reached by Theresa May and the EU says that until a good solution is found (or, if one isn't quickly found), a temporary solution will be applied that keeps Northern Ireland aligned with the EU to protect the peace agreement, and presumably, a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Or something like that.

And this temporary solution will run as long as needed (years? decades?) until both the UK and EU agree a better solution has been found.

That temporary solution is what the "backstop" actually is.

So with that background, the answer to the question is roughly this:

  • Britain wants the backstop removed from the agreement, because as long as the backstop exists, the UK (or part of it) is still bound to EU rules, and can't move on. That's why the UK government wants it removed.
  • The government supports this by arguing that other ways can be found (technological?) to fully handle the customs issues, without needing a formal (hard) border to be created. If true, it would indeed mean that the backstop won't be needed. So they feel it can be ditched.
  • The problem is that nobody else in the negotiation agrees, and no other country has made such a thing work. Ever. So naturally the EU isn't agreeing that any currently discussed alternative approaches can work as an alternative.
  • So the EU feels that there isn't a way to avoid the issues, right now, so for the time being the backstop (or something like it) is needed to be sure their border stays protected until a permanent and actual agreed solution is found. But obviously they can't say how long that would be either.
  • So the UK government is arguing that the backstop isn't needed, because solutions can be found, while the EU is saying that solutions haven't yet been found and agreed, and yes it's been agreed they will try to find one, but until they succeed a temporary solution (the backstop) is unavoidable.
  • 36
    The previous UK government already proposed a so-called "smart border" based on some fanciful technology, then admitted then it wouldn't actually work, at least not by the end of the transition period. The current UK government says that such a solution supposedly exists, so the backstop is not needed, when if the solution actually existed, the backstop wouldn't be an issue. The fact that they say the backstop is an issue clearly means they don't think there is a solution.
    – jcaron
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 23:01
  • 14
    I have seen government IT projects when there is ONE government involved (NHS IT anyone? Or how about Universal Credit?), I dread to think of the cost and schedule over runs when there are (at least) TWO sets of the buggers doing the spec....
    – Dan Mills
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 0:26
  • 13
    You are misusing the word sovereign, in my opinion. The EU is not sovereign. All member states are sovereign on their own. That's why it's called the European Union and not the United States of Europe.
    – Nobody
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 9:52
  • 17
    You may add that the all-UK backstop was the UKs idea. The EU originally proposed a NI-only backstop.
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 15:58
  • 13
    I would add that putting a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is untenable to the DUP, the minor party without which the Conservatives do not have a majority in Parliament. Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 20:23

The leadership is lying. They know that a border will be required to protect the Single Market, but it's inconvenient for them because they have no solution to it. So they deny it and pretend that it's not needed.

  • 33
    Without some sources, or at least links to other questions on the stack framing the sentiments here, this is more of a comment than an answer. This questionis a good starting point.
    – Jontia
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 11:47
  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 18:20

Also as far as I understand (but I could be wrong) the backstop would not keep the entire U.K. tied to many of the EU’s customs and trading rules. It could, however, keep Northern Ireland tied to those rules (maybe similar to what might happen to Gibraltar?).

Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK having different rules is not something unionists want. Especially the Conservatives' coalition party the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) does not want that. As the BBC puts it:

To the DUP, the backstop represented its worst fears come to life: regulatory differences meaning only NI would continue to follow some EU rules, no time limit and the ability to exit the backstop would need to be agreed jointly by the UK and EU.

And to some extent, this reasoning also goes for the Conservative party, which full name also includes the word unionist, again from the BBC (emphasis mine):

In 1886, the Liberal Party split over the issue of home rule for Ireland, and the Liberal Unionist Party was formed. It formed an alliance with the Tories before being formally absorbed in 1912, creating the full title of the present-day organisation: the Conservative and Unionist Party.

A more realpolitik answer should note that it opens the door of Northern Ireland reuniting with the Republic of Ireland. After all, it would be closer aligned to the Republic than to the rest of the UK, when comparing the current situation to the backstop situation.

The way Irish Unification works is explained in another of my answers. Eventually, it's up to the people of Northern Ireland, and the backstop may be a factor when people make that opinion. Given the previous, that is not something UK unionists want, and losing part of one's territory is not something people want (in general).

  • 2
    I think the OP was making a different point. They were looking for reasons why the backstop is an issue given the many statements that so many solutions are available. Not why using the backstop long term would be detrimental. What is the problem with wearing a coat that is easy to take off, not what happens if the coat turns out to be a straight-jacket.
    – Jontia
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 6:50
  • 1
    @Jontia good point. I may try to elaborate later on, but I think it's a bit of an exaggeration that there are many solutions. If they had one, they would publicise it as it's the UK (and brexiteers in particular) that benefits most from a successful Brexit.
    – JJJ
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 7:23
  • 4
    the lack of publicity of any solutions alongside the statements that there are many solutions is at the heart of this question. To my reading of it anyway.
    – Jontia
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 10:18
  • 1
    Both the DUP and the Conservatives seem happy to have differences when it comes to marriage equality and abortion. The position that there can't be any differences is clearly false.
    – Eric Nolan
    Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 21:30
  • 6
    Possibly relevant. I'm not sure just how Unionist the Brexit wing of the Conservative party honestly is - but I guess they have to at least pretend to be. Commented Aug 24, 2019 at 22:45

why is the [current] U.K. [government] so keen to have the backstop removed?

There's one reason not yet covered by other answers.

The Treaty on European Union (2007) allows for a state to unilaterally withdraw from membership at any time, after giving notice. Unilaterally means the withdrawing state does not need the permission of any other EU member states or EU bodies. States acceding to the EU are led to believe that membership of the EU is voluntary.

The backstop is binding in perpetuity and the EU member state (UK) is unable to ever withdraw from it unless all other EU parties agree.

A member state seeking to withdraw from the EU might find it objectionable if the process provides, not the desired freedom from EU control but instead even tighter and now inescapable EU control, potentially until the end of time.

People may argue that the situation is largely of the withdrawing state's own making. This does not make it any the less objectionable to people seeking withdrawal.

(Note: I voted remain, however I can still comprehend the other side's objections to the backstop)

  • This answer explains well why one member would feel aggravated by a promised free exit clause which turns out to be actually potentially binding forever ... However, the backstop is NOT caused by any of the status in the Treaty on European Union. It stems from another binding international agrement (The GFA) that the UK signed too. The GFA never envisaged Brexit, so they are no provisions on what to do in this case. The backstop is the only option they could come up with so far to reconciliate exiting from one agreement (The EU membership) but staying true to the letter of the other (the GFA).
    – Hoki
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 10:12
  • @Hoki: No one said the treaty caused the backstop. I contrasted the exit conditions of each to show why there was concern. Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 10:21
  • Note that this concern was addressed (somewhat) by dropping the backstop and replacing it with the NI protocol. Which provides an "option for the Northern Ireland Assembly to vote after four years on whether to terminate or retain the arrangement" -- this seems to contradict your assertion that " The backstop is the only option they could come up with so far" Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 10:34

Perhaps I could add my pennyworth: in order (supposedly!) to preserve the UK Union, the DUP and some Tories in the "Conservative and Unionist Party" are genuinely concerned that there should be no regulatory differences between the mainland (and other islands around Britain), and Northern Ireland. In fact one irony among many is that there are already many substantial legislative and regulatory differences, but let's not get caught up in that.

I am generally 100% behind the EU27's position on most things, but as it happens I think both sides are being very stupid here. More obviously the UK is being stupid because the backstop need not happen, even if promised, when push comes to shove and if, two or three or four years down the line, no FTA (Free Trade Agreement) has been reached, AND no practicable technological solution (combined with other arrangements*) has been devised either. At that point the UK could just say "OK, hard border it is". There is no point whatsoever confronting the issue at this time: it is absurd to do so: the approach should have been one of "we'll assume we find some solution to this, somehow".

But I also think the EU27, and particularly Dublin, are not being rational: this backstop nonsense is the ONE THING preventing the WA being passed (in fact large numbers of Labour MPs should have defied Corbyn's - or Milne's - political whip and voted for the WA in one or more of the 3 defeated votes) ... and therefore the one thing which is inevitably going to make a hard border this November absolutely unavoidable. Denying the "hard truth" of this Catch-22 / blackmail situation is not in anyone's interest.

So IMHO all mentions of the backstop should either be ignored by the UK side, or just be struck out of the proposed WA. But of course it's far far far too late for that: one side or the other would lose face impossibly. So we're going to have a No Deal, a hard border in Ireland, and much strife (including murder) about when and how a (first) Reunification referendum is to be held. If the NI referendum - the Republic has to have one too under the GFA - is a balanced vote (52%-48% for example), it will make divisions even worse. No Deal Brexit is very likely to bring forward the Reunification agenda prematurely, before there is, as there might otherwise be one day in the nearish future, a clear and unanswerable majority in NI for Reunification (or just as likely, had the UK continued as a Member State, the issue would just have faded away into nothing).

I appreciate that the problem with the border is that the EU cannot have an unregulated external border. Under the WA the whole point is that during the transition period there would have been enforced alignment and the UK would have continued to be able to trade as though it were still a member. In fact the much-maligned WA is rather a good deal for the UK: as for Corbyn's manufactured nonsense, claiming for example that it does not protect workers' rights, this is COMPLETELY UNTRUE. It specifically says that social and employment rights shall remain aligned, if one can be bothered to read the thing. Obviously the hordes of Labour moron backbench MPs could not be bothered.

NB for the sake of clarification, I am a Remainer, a socialist and was previously a Labour Party member (I resigned when Blair came to power).

The one glimmer of hope I have (I don't believe the MPs have enough time now to prevent No Deal, given Erskine May - parliamentary procedure - and the determination of the ERG, Cummings, etc.) is that the backstop could simply be renamed: Johnson calls it something else ("stopback"?) and it has the same characteristics as the existing backstop. But Johnson lies about this, claims it as a triumph, and the Brexiters - not the sharpest tools in the box - accept this. The DUPs might kick up a stink but enough Labour MPs might just vote for it. The EU27 would have to accept this Orwellian renaming. They might or might not be prepared to accept this for the great prize of avoiding No Deal and the terrible breaching of the GFA.

* "other arrangements" - this is an allusion to the very singular geographical, social and economic relationship between Ireland and the UK: the Republic of Ireland has no other land borders, and very very tight connections with the UK economy. It might make sense, as part of a way of avoiding a hard border, to incorporate aspects of a border, on a time-limited basis, between the Republic and the remainder of the EU27 as part of a comprehensive, complicated, partly technological solution designed to preserve the GFA. The transition period would give quite a bit of time to delve into all these aspects on a basis of mutual respect. But no... it is not to be.

  • 3
    I'm not sure how both parties are being stupid if there's no alternative. The backstop agreement is a contingency policy for a few years 'down the line'. The UK parliament rejected that. Not putting it in the agreement is like ignoring the issue and it will have to be considered at some point (since the UK doesn't want to stay in the single market, which would make the backstop unnecessary).
    – JJJ
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 21:52
  • Hmm, did you actually read what I wrote? We get into a transition phase, the phase for negotiation for a FTA. Chances are high that an FTA would be reached, in which case the GFA is saved and no border is needed. If that doesn't happen, and if no complex partly technological solution has been reached either, the issue is confronted when it needs to be, not before it needs to be. Sigh. Just think about it, perhaps. Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 21:55
  • 3
    If such an FTA were the goal (of the UK) and it would accept the four freedoms set by the EU then the current (past) negotiations would have been a lot different and what you say could be applied (though it would be Brexit in name only). It's my understanding that the UK wishes to make FTAs of its own with other countries, meaning it wants to back out of the current arrangements with the EU, requiring some border. It's those two sets of red lines, those set by the UK and those set by the EU (and WTO rules) that limit the set of options.
    – JJJ
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 22:00
  • 1
    That's my initial question, how does the situation in which there is an FTA without accepting the four freedoms (in particular freedom of movement) not require some border (customs arrangements) between the EU and the UK? In my understanding, that's why the issue exists. You're saying looking at the issue could be postponed, but the only argument in favour of that is some technological solution which the EU doesn't seem to consider acceptable / possible. So it's not clear to me what other benefits there are in favour of postponing working on the issue in this agreement.
    – JJJ
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 22:10
  • 4
    "Chances are high that an FTA would be reached, in which case the GFA is saved and no border is needed": A free trade agreement does not permit the elimination of customs controls. Only a customs union can do that. And there is no talk of immigration controls. The common travel area has existed for nearly 100 years, and it will continue to do so.
    – phoog
    Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 4:28

Becasue the British government believes that the EU will deliberately block the possible alternatives in order to impose the backstop and cause pain to the UK, even if if means pain for the EU (and particularly Southern Ireland). This may or may not be correct, but there is considerable evidence to support the view that the EU negotiators would rather have problems for both sides than an arrangement that benefits everybody (since that would encourage other countries to leave).

  • 15
    What is the supposed "arrangement that benefits everybody" you are talking about? Mr Johnson and others have repeated they don't want the backstop, but no one has made a single suggestion as to what those other arrangements could be. The current proposed agreement, backstop included, IS the arrangement that benefits everybody.
    – jcaron
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 12:27
  • 22
    there is considerable evidence Oh yeah? Where is it? Unless you can provide it you just repeat the usual UK EU bashing, read slander. You do know why Mr. Johnson got fired from the Times, right?
    – TaW
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 14:49
  • 12
    Citation needed. And there has not been any entity called Southern Ireland since 1922.
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 16:02
  • 17
    @jcaron The arrangement that benefits everyone is continued EU membership, but we're not allowed to have that. Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 1:17
  • 3
    @gerrit. Calling the Republic "Southern Ireland" is pretty common from old-school British imperialists.
    – TRiG
    Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 9:48

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