When we embarked on a serious effort to demonstrate that alternative arrangements to the infamous Irish backstop are possible and could unlock the Brexit logjam, we had two ambitions.
Our first ambition was to kill off the idea that alternative arrangements are an unproven unicorn. The second was to create a genuine route out of the jam, following the failure of government to start this work earlier itself. The backstop is the principal reason many MPs would not vote for the withdrawal agreement. The fear is that it could permanently hive off Northern Ireland into an EU-controlled regulatory and customs regime separate from the rest of Britain. As chair of the Commons Treasury select committee, I am genuinely concerned about the damage Brexit uncertainty is doing to the economy. The weakness of the pound is testament to that.
I believe that today’s final report of the Prosperity UK Alternative Arrangements Commission, which I co-chair, fulfils both of those ambitions. The report is based on the input of 23 technical experts. They include the former head of the UK Border Force, Tony Smith, and we have heard ideas from Fujitsu and Vodafone, among others.
Our conclusion is that by implementing current international best practice and the right legal structure, including trusted trader schemes, a potential single sanitary and phytosanitary zone for the island of Ireland and a generous transition fund paid for by the UK Government, alternative arrangements based on existing technology could be up and running within three years.
Rather than just publish a report, we have commissioned the leading City law firm Herbert Smith Freehills to help us draft two alternative arrangements legal protocols. The first protocol is intended to be inserted into the current withdrawal agreement. The backstop provision could remain but it would be superseded, assuming the UK met its commitments to implement the alternative arrangements. The second protocol could be used in any other scenario, such as a new free trade deal or a no-deal situation (which we are keen to avoid).
In January, the Commons passed the Brady Amendment, approving the withdrawal agreement if alternative arrangements could be found. And the EU has committed, in the Strasbourg Declaration, to seeking alternative arrangements if the withdrawal agreement is passed. Both the candidates in the Conservative leadership contest have also said they want alternative arrangements to be a feature of any Brexit agreement.
We have seen at first hand that upholding the Good Friday Agreement while also avoiding a hard border in Ireland is the key to unblocking the Brexit logjam. Reconciling these two objectives is not easy, but we have done the technical work and I hope both sides will soon be able to come to an agreement.
- Nicky Morgan is Conservative MP for Loughborough and co-chair of the Prosperity UK Alternative Arrangements Commission