The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee publishes report on the backstop and the implications of a hard border, in which it concludes that a world-first technical solution to the Northern Ireland border would be possible if all sides adopt a shared position of trust and goodwill.
The Committee publishes this report as part of its ongoing inquiry into the implications of the EU Withdrawal Agreement for Northern Ireland. The report notes that although the UK, Ireland and the EU agree there will be no return to the border of the past on the island of Ireland, disagreement over how to achieve it has brought the negotiations to a standstill and increased the likelihood of no deal or the possibility of not leaving at all.
Technical solutions to the border
The Committee believes that a key obstacle to finding a technical solution to the border is a lack of trust and goodwill. However, "the balance of the evidence suggests that such a solution is possible and that it could be designed, trialled and piloted within the 21 month implementation period." But the Committee notes that implementation of what have become known as alternative solutions is not a simple, quick-fix but would constitute a highly sophisticated "world first", and that it would be a substantial achievement.
Defining a hard border
The Committee perceives that the UK and EU have taken different approaches to the stated joint aim of avoiding a hard border. This may indicate a difference in overall desired outcome from the Brexit process and also of what is understood to be a hard border. The report stresses that, ultimately, the UK and the EU must agree on a definition of hard border. That would help to build trust and facilitate shared understanding of what a future relationship, that can supersede the backstop, could look like.
The Committee recommends the following steps to help break the deadlock:
- Amend the Political Declaration to make it clear that the backstop is intended only as a means of avoiding a hard border and that it should not be interpreted as a given in negotiating the future UK-EU relationship;
- The UK and EU should clarify their definitions of the term ‘hard border’ by March 12 in order to avoid misunderstandings around whether the backstop protocol is needed.
Commenting on the publication of the report, Chair of the NI Affairs Committee Dr Andrew Murrison MP said:
"Time is running out to reach common ground. There should be no attempt to use the border as a lever or as a way of securing political advantage. Mistrust over the backstop protocol has been heightened by lack of clarity on what exactly constitutes a 'hard border.' My Committee is calling for clarification of the term in a legally explicit way to ensure both parties share the same understanding of how the backstop can be avoided.
My Committee took good evidence to suggest that technical and systems-based solutions to ensure the border looks and feels as it does today are do-able but they require trust and goodwill."
The Committee will continue to take evidence on Brexit and the border and make recommendations.