Why there's no budging on the 'backstop' in three little words

Angus Walker

Former ITV News Correspondent

Earlier on Wednesday, when the EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas gave reporters his assessment of the talks held on Tuesday between Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and the EU's Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, he used three little words which have taken on a vital political importance.

"Talks have been difficult," he said, adding that "no solution has been identified…"

He then explained that "we offered ideas on how to give further reassurances that the backstop, if used, will apply temporarily, only for as long as strictly necessary, unless and until a subsequent agreement has been found that ensures that the yard border is avoided".

Note the words "unless and until".

Significant because they are a key formulation in the wording within the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement, the Brexit divorce deal.

You'll find them in the Irish border 'backstop' clauses.

The backstop is the insurance policy designed to ensure that there will never be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

It means the UK would stay in the EU's customs union if no future trading deal removes the need for customs checks.

Brexiter and Unionist MPs hate the backstop because they see it as a trap that could keep us in the EU forever.

The EU's Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier. Credit: AP

Now note the the words contained in the letter from Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EU Commission, and Donald Tusk, President of the EU Council, sent to Theresa May in mid January:

"Were the backstop to enter into force in whole or in part, it is intended to apply only temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement."

There is again the "unless and until".

The point of picking out those words, is that it shows very clearly that the main issue, of how to prevent the backstop being seen as permanent, just simply hasn't been solved.

Certainly not in the last six weeks or so since the prime minister won the vote on the Brady amendment and returned to Brussels seeking changes to the backstop.

In fact, you can trace the same argument all the way back to late 2017.

Perhaps Wednesday was the day we really got a fatal sense that the gridlock in Brussels will not move.

Perhaps there's no budging on the backstop because of those other three famous political words: "nothing has changed."