Brexit and the Northern Irish Backstop - Old wine in new bottles or a new vintage?
At 11.01pm UK time on 11th March 2019, the UK Department for Exiting the European Union published a whole set of new documents on its website representing the outcome of the latest round of negotiations between the UK and the EU on how to break the impasse over the "temporary" nature of the so-called Northern Irish backstop ( being the default arrangements for a continued trading and customs arrangement with the EU retaining certain elements of EU supervision and control in relation to Northern Ireland, should no detailed free trade agreement be reached between the UK and the EU during the so-called Implementation Period ending 31st December 2020 ).
The new documents are led by a "Statement that Political Agreement has been reached" from the Prime Minister and, in addition to that Statement, comprise the following draft documents:-
1. A "Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom" ( being a slightly updated version of the draft Political Declaration published in November 2018);
2. An " Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community" ( being a slightly updated version of the draft Withdrawal Agreement published in November 2018);
3. A "Joint statement supplementing the Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" ( declaring the joint intention of the parties to put in place "at speed" suitable "alternative arrangements" to the Northern Irish backstop solution contained in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland to the draft Withdrawal Agreement);
4. A "Declaration by Her Majesty's Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland concerning the Northern Ireland Protocol" ( the so-called "unilateral declaration" of the UK Government - reportedly slightly contentious from an EU standpoint - apparently purporting to give the UK Government an ability no longer to apply "obligations under the Protocol" if the parties failed to negotiate in good faith the suitable "alternative arrangements" to the Northern Irish backstop solution referred to above);
5. An "Instrument relating to the agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community " ( the so-called "legally binding instrument" laying down a timetable and a structure for the negotiations of the final agreement to replace the Protocol in whole or in part ).
These documents show an enormous expenditure of effort by both parties to try and resolve the key difficulties of the Protocol but none of them in clear unequivocal terms gives the UK or for that matter the EU a way out of the Protocol should the negotiations to replace the Northern Irish backstop fail for any reason. Herein lies the rub for politicians and the people.
On the other hand, if one side or the other denounced the Protocol in due course on the basis that it operated unfairly, what in practice could the other side do about it? We live in a time where the rules- based international order is under challenge and where a new populism trumps the old order. Perhaps, therefore, it does not matter whether the new documents are old wine in bottles or really a new vintage. At some point - probably very soon! - political reality will prevail.