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Boris Johnson's backstop letter

In a letter to the EU Council President, Donald Tusk, on 19 August 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out his demands for Brexit negotiations. We look at what they mean.

Key principles

What the letter says

What it means

The peace process

“We recognise the unique challenges the outcome of the referendum poses for Ireland, and want to find solutions to the border which work for all”.

The prime minister recognises the unique position of Northern Ireland in the negotiations. It is the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU and has close economic, social and political links to the Republic of Ireland.

The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement

“We are unconditionally committed to the spirit and letter of our obligations under it in all circumstances – whether there is a deal with the EU or not.”

The UK government does not see no deal as a threat to its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement.

Maintaining the Common Travel Area, North-South co-operation and the Single Electricity Market

“The UK remains committed to maintaining the Common Travel Area, to upholding the rights of people of Northern Ireland, to ongoing North-South co-operation, and to retaining the benefits of the Single Electricity Market.”

The Common Travel Area allows British and Irish citizens to move freely between the UK and the Republic of Ireland – which the UK government has already offered guarantees over in the event of no deal.


It has also said that it will “take all possible measures” to maintain the Single Electricity Market, but this will require agreement with the Irish government and European Commission.

Problems with the backstop

What the letter says

What it means

“Anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK”

The backstop “places a substantial regulatory border, rooted in that treaty, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.”

“The treaty provides no sovereign means of exiting unilaterally…”

“… and affords the people of Northern Ireland no influence over the legislation which applies to them”

The government sets out the three justifications for its claim that the backstop is “anti-democratic”:

  • The separate regulatory jurisdictions of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
  • The lack of a unilateral exit mechanism
  • The inability of Northern Ireland to influence the rules that apply to it as part of the backstop.

Previously the UK government’s demand was for a unilateral exit, but this suggests there are now much bigger concerns

“Inconsistent with the UK’s desired final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship with the EU”

“When the UK leaves the EU and after any transition period, we will leave the single market and the customs union.”

“Although we will remain committed to world-class environmental, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU”

“By requiring continued membership of the customs union and applying many single market rules in Northern Ireland, it presents the whole of the UK with the choice of remaining in a customs union and aligned with those rules, or seeing Northern Ireland gradually detached from the UK economy”


Johnson has given the clearest indication yet of his vision for a future UK–EU relationship.

It involves a free trade agreement but without the ‘level playing field’ commitments around environment and labour standards. This is likely to be a major stumbling block in talks with the EU, which sees these commitments as necessary conditions for any tariff-free trade relationship.

The PM rejects the choice between either the whole UK remaining aligned with EU rules or creating a ‘Northern Ireland-specific’ backstop – two key fears of his backbenchers and supporters in the Democratic Unionist Party.

Finally, the PM rejects the founding principle of the backstop, contained in the December 2017 Joint Report – which was negotiated and agreed while he was foreign secretary.

“Risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement”

“By removing control of such large areas of the commercial and economic life of Northern Ireland to an external body over which the people of Northern Ireland have no democratic control, this balance [set out in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement] risks being undermined.”

“The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement neither depends nor requires a particular customs or regulatory regime. The broader commitment… can be best met if we explore solutions other than the backstop”

The PM restates the concerns that Northern Ireland would be subject to rules and regulations over which it had no formal voice.

Johnson states that the Good Friday Agreement contains no mention of customs or regulatory matters, which is correct in as far as the continued EU membership of the UK and Ireland was taken as the critical context for the agreement.

It also suggests that the Irish and UK governments have different interpretations of the agreement – and therefore whether the backstop is necessary for it to be protected.

The PM does not clarify what these new proposals are.

Next steps

What the letter says

What it means

No return to a hard border

“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 I hope that the EU would do likewise”

The UK reaffirms its commitment to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

This is significant in that it does not mention previous UK government commitments to protect the ‘all-Ireland economy’ and focuses solely on the border. That suggests it is open to checks away from the border, something both sides previously ruled out.

Offering a legally binding commitment is unlikely to be seen as a big benefit by the EU. It is much more constrained in what it can do at the border due to its rules and regulations. The EU has previously said the only way to avoid a border is some kind of single market and customs union membership.


“Flexible and creative” solutions

“Alternative ways of managing the customs and regulatory differences contingent on Brexit must be explored.”

“The reality is that there are already two separate legal, political, economic and monetary jurisdictions on the island of Ireland.”


The PM wants the UK and EU to find “alternative arrangements”, something already committed to by both sides.

But the emphasis on there being separate economic jurisdictions suggests that the UK government no longer recognises the importance of the ‘all-Ireland economy’.


Replacing the backstop

“I propose that the backstop should be replaced with a commitment to put in place such [alternative] arrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period, as part of the future relationship”

The PM wants to replace the backstop with new – as yet unspecified or proposed – solutions to avoid a border on the island of Ireland.

In January 2019 the EU committed to seeking alternative arrangements and putting them in place before the end of the transition, so that the backstop would not be necessary.

The backstop’s purpose was always to be ready at the end of the transition period, but as part of the withdrawal agreement rather than the future relationship. As such, it was to act as an insurance policy should the future relationship talks fail.

If alternative arrangements are not in place

“I also recognise that will need to be a degree of confidence about what would happen if these arrangements were not all fully in place at the end of that period. We are ready to look constructively and flexibly at what commitments might help, consistent of course with the principles set out in this letter”

The PM suggests that UK government does recognise the need for an insurance policy should the future relationship or alternative arrangements discussions fail to deliver.

Whether this means an agreement similar to the backstop – in terms of detail and coverage – or a much looser agreement is again not clear.


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