Brexit: Backstop ‘amounts to UK hands tied behind its back’

Martin Howe QC speaking at the NI Affairs Committee
Martin Howe QC speaking at the NI Affairs Committee
Share this article

The Irish border backstop would constrain the UK’s negotiating position during post-separation trade talks, a pro-Brexit legal expert has said.

Martin Howe QC, who chairs Lawyers for Britain, said there would be no incentive for the EU to make concessions if the backstop is the default.

He was giving evidence today to the NI Affairs Committee at Westminster.

Mr Howe, nephew of former Conservative chancellor in the Thatcher administration Geoffrey Howe and chairman of pro-Brexit group Lawyers for Britain, said: “You cannot hold out for your essential interests. If you fail to reach agreement these terms come into effect, that constrains your negotiating power. Why should the other side give you better terms unless you are able to offer them something else in return that is better for them?”

Labour MP Kate Hoey summarised his comments as meaning “we are going in with our hands tied behind our back”.

The backstop, contained in the proposed EU withdrawal treaty, has been arguably the most contentious aspect of the whole withdrawal process.

A transition period kicks in after March 29, keeping the UK under EU rules until at least the end of 2020.

However, the backstop is the set of arrangements which will kick in if the UK and EU have still not finalised a deal by the time that transition arrangement runs out.

It would effectively keep the whole UK under EU customs union rules, and keep Northern Ireland in particular under rules concerning the single market. The backstop arrangement can only end with EU agreement.

Barrister Isabelle Van Damme, another lawyer who gave evidence, challenged the assumption Europe is not interested in striking a deal.

The barrister, who is a member of the Brussels Bar, said: “I have a bit of a difficulty with accepting that as a starting point because there are so many matters in which the EU and the 27 member states co-operate to the advantage of the respective economies.”

After the meeting, the committee chairman Dr Andrew Murrison said: “My committee wants to ensure that the implications of the full range of Brexit outcomes for Northern Ireland, including leaving with no deal, are fully recognised and understood.

“The lawyers my committee heard from today laid out the spectrum of legal positions on the backstop, assurances from the European Union and the definition of a hard border. What they made clear is that the complexities of the withdrawal agreement are not free from legal interpretation, which I suspect may lead to continued political fall out in the days ahead.”

Last November, the News Letter had published a piece penned by Mr Howe shortly after the Withdrawal Agreement was published. You can read it here: Belfast Agreement’s promise of consent broken by PM’s Brexit deal