Trade, Development, and Immigration

Bridge, safety net or trap?


Government and Institutions
Economic Theory
Olly Robbins assertion, slightly embarrassingly overheard and reported by a journalist – that the government is planning to give MPs a choice between voting for the Withdrawal Agreement or facing a lengthy extension of Article 50 – has caused controversy today.  His other comments, that the backstop was intended to be a ‘bridge’, (something that would be embarked upon to lead to the future relationship), not a ‘safety net’ (that would not be used, as the parties successfully execute manoeuvres to bypass it) have been the subject of speculation.

Did it mean they sought a bridge but ended up with a safety net?  How would this play out in practice?

As luck would have it, I was giving evidence to the House of Lords EU Select Committee yesterday afternoon, a few hours before ‘hotel bar-gate’, and covered similar ground (though sadly without the aid of Belgian beers to lubricate proceedings).

I noted in my answers to the (very thoughtful) questions from peers that, as things stand, the most likely way to either avert triggering the backstop – or to bring it to an end once in it – would be to formalise it into a permanent arrangement; no longer a backstop as such, but still a single customs territory with (at least) Northern Ireland tied to single market rules.

This is not least because bringing the backstop into operation would be highly complex and disruptive, and once triggered it would be the new status quo: little appetite among affected businesses to transition again to another new arrangement.

This does not need to be accidentally leaked – it is what the political declaration envisages.

It states that the future relationship should “build and improve on the single customs territory provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement which obviates the need for checks on rules of origin”.

Without wishing to torture the analogy – you don’t build on a safety net.

Further IEA Reading: Dissecting the Backstop

Head of Regulatory Affairs

Victoria joined the IEA’s International Trade and Competition Unit in Spring 2018. She is a lawyer and practiced for 12 years in the fields of technology and financial services, before joining the Legatum Institute Special Trade Commission to focus on trade and regulatory policy. She has published work on the implications and opportunities of Brexit in financial services and movement of goods and the issues in connection with the Irish border. Before entering the legal profession Victoria worked for Procter & Gamble in the UK and Germany.

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