It’s a term taken from cricket and baseball. Now, a “backstop” holds the key to Britain’s messy exit from the European Union.

Demonstrators on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland near Newry in Northern Ireland, 26 January 2019 (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

Two and half years after laborious negotiations began on Britain’s exit from the European Union, they risk running aground over a proposed solution borrowed from cricket and baseball.

The clock is ticking, with the UK due to leave the bloc on March 29 — with or without a deal.

The British public, confused and appalled by the inability of their political leaders to negotiate an orderly exit from the EU, are asking themselves: What is a “backstop”? Why is it so important?

And why are so many members of Britain’s ruling Conservative party opposed to it?

Just what is the “backstop”?

The word “backstop” comes from the sport of cricket, although it is rarely used nowadays, denoting a fielder positioned directly behind the wicket-keeper in case he misses the ball. It was picked up later by baseball, for a wall behind the batter to stop foul balls from striking the crowd.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal approved by the European Commission last November depended on a “backstop” that would ensure there was no return to a hard border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the mostly Catholic Irish Republic if the UK left the EU.

That’s when customs controls would normally be required at the border between Ireland, which is in the EU, and the United Kingdom, which after Brexit would be outside the bloc.

The Commission insisted on including an indefinite backstop in the withdrawal agreement to ensure there would be no hard border while the UK negotiates a future trade deal with the EU that would, hopefully, make it no longer necessary.

Why do both sides oppose the return of a hard border after Brexit?

The thought of a return to a “hard” border between the two parts of Ireland is greeted with dismay by both sides.

Those alive at the time will never forget the decades of religious and sectarian violence that pitted Catholics against Protestants and which ended with the 1998 Good Friday power-sharing agreement signed by London and Dublin. The accord was firmly rooted in their joint membership of the EU.

The proposed Brexit deal, following concessions on both sides, would allow the UK to remain in a customs union with the EU while it would negotiate a new trade agreement. In return, it would retain the Irish backstop for as long as necessary and allow special, deeper customs arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

But a huge majority in Britain’s parliament rejected the government’s deal in January. So right-wing members then pressed the prime minister to return to Brussels to seek new concessions — an end or time-limit to the backstop, or “alternative means of control,” likely referring to technological solutions already ruled out by the EU.

The early response from Brussels was that the deal, which May herself drew up with more input from civil servants than politicians, was non-negotiable.

Hard-line Brexiteers want a clean break with the EU. They see the backstop as potentially keeping the UK in the customs union indefinitely. They also fear it could force Britain to accept EU regulations — abhored by many “Leavers” — while it struggles to forge a new trading agreement.

What is the religious makeup of Northern Ireland?

The hard-line Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 members in the UK parliament prop up May’s minority Conservative government, are opposed to the province’s special customs links with the Republic. They fear such links could lead to eventual Irish reunification.

Since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921, when six Protestant counties split from the rest of the newly-independent Irish Republic, Protestants have enjoyed a majority of roughly 60 to 40 over the years.

But in recent years the picture has changed.

The last census showed 48 percent Protestants and 45 percent Catholics. In recent elections, Catholic parties in Northern Ireland, which voted in the EU referendum to remain by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, have polled more than Protestant ones for the first time in the province’s history.

The Good Friday agreement states that Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary should call a border poll “if he or she thinks a majority would vote for unification.”

Why do hard-line Brexiteers want no deal?

May told parliament after the defeat of her deal that she was prepared to meet with all groups, including those who want the UK to remain in the EU and others seeking to leave but under a “softer” deal that would preserve some of the country’s current links with the bloc (*corrected).

Meanwhile, parliament has voted by a narrow majority against a “no-deal “Brexit, although the vote was non-binding.

Hard-line Brexiteers have welcomed the prospect of no deal. They argue it would free the country to forge new agreements with the rest of the world. But businesses have warned it could create chaos and lead to a major economic slump.

May’s decision to ignore advice from moderates and heed the call by hard-line Brexiteers to go back to Brussels and demand a time limit on the backstop suggests she is worried they could split from the Conservative Party. That could lead to new elections and possibly her downfall.

Meanwhile, the British are trying to reconcile the idea of a prime minister tearing up an agreement she negotiated almost single-handedly over 30, long months and ordering members of her party to vote for a new deal — which may or may not exist.

(*This version corrects an editor’s error, making clear in the 20th paragraph that it was not Prime Minister Theresa May who offered a “softer” deal, rather other moderate groups including some Leave voters.)


  1. Where does the term “backstop” come from?
  2. In the Brexit negotiations, what does the “backstop” refer to?
  3. Why do so many members of the UK’s Conservative Party oppose the backstop?

Colin McIntyre led Reuters coverage of the end of communism in Eastern Europe as chief correspondent in the region in the late 1980s. During 34 years at Reuters, he covered the last days of the Vietnam War and was posted to Indonesia, Ireland and London.

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DecodersWhat’s the Brexit “backstop”? And why does it matter?