The UK Government has recently been reiterating that customs checks will not be located at or near the North/South Irish border.

But the Withdrawal Agreement treaty (Article 184) commits the UK to membership of a single customs territory (para. 23), which would negate the need for customs checks at that border.

Is the recent focus on customs checks specifically to cater for the unlikely scenario that implementation of the future relationship fails?

2 Answers 2


In a word, yes. The backstop, which this idea is supposed to replace, was only ever intended to be used if the UK and EU could not agree on terms by the end of the transition period (currently scheduled for December 31st 2021).

The Withdrawal Agreement states that if alternative arrangements can be found which are agreed by both the EU and UK then there will be no need for the backstop. Since the backstop is so objectionable to UK MPs the government is trying to agree alternative arrangements now. Once agreed they hope that MPs will pass the withdrawal agreement, knowing that the backstop will never come in to play.

  • I believe this answer has now fallen out of date.
    – 52d6c6af
    Oct 3, 2019 at 15:44

The withdrawal agreement has not been ratified, and it is very unlikely that it will be in its current form. This is not least because the current government of the UK are opposed to many aspects of the treaty, including the backstop arrangements for Northern Ireland. The renewed focus on the Irish border is a result of the UK government trying to renegotiate the treaty with the EU to address their concerns.

All this said, if the treaty were to be ratified in its current state (or something very close to its current state) these new options would be irrelevant. The primary purpose of these plans is to replace the backstop in a renegotiated withdrawal agreement, with a view to making it more palatable to some MPs in the UK. If the EU were to agree to these plans, they would come into place if a single customs territory were not to be created.

In my view, the reason these plans are being given so much coverage (as the original backstop was) is because most people (at least in the UK) don't expect the negotiations in the transition period to be fruitful so these fallback plans are more important than is perhaps initially apparent.

  • Thank you. Johnson has stated that the main change he seeks to the WA is the backstop. If we assume that the backstop is the only significant change to the WA, might my characterisation of the situation be correct? ie. the PD commits to membership of a customs territory that would solve the problem, but the recent discussion about customs checks is to cover the eventuality that the PD implementation fails?
    – 52d6c6af
    Oct 2, 2019 at 12:01
  • I'm pretty sure he has said he wants to secure changes to the political declaration as well (I can't get a source right now, but I'll try find one later) so I think all bets are off. I also don't share your optimism that the future relationship outlined failing is unlikely, but admittedly that is absolutely a matter of opinion! Oct 2, 2019 at 12:11

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