In Depth

Alternative Arrangements Working Group: what are the latest Brexit backstop ideas?

Government to flesh out details of ‘Malthouse compromise’ in attempt to secure different Irish border deal

A new group of Leave and Remain Conservative MPs is meeting for the first time today in a last-ditch bid to thrash out a new Irish backstop compromise ahead of Brexit.

The Alternative Arrangements Working Group - which will have the full support of civil servants from across government - is being chaired by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, while members include hard-line Brexiteers Steve Baker, Owen Paterson and Marcus Fysh, and compromise-minded Remainers Damian Green and Nicky Morgan.

The group was formed after MPs voted last Tuesday for an amendment that calls on the Government to pursue “alternative arrangements” in order to resolve the Irish border problem. The focus will be on “trying to establish the viability of plans to use technology as a means of avoiding a hard border in Ireland”, and on developing “ideas set out in the so-called Malthouse compromise”, says The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow.

What is the Malthouse compromise?

Named after Housing Minister Kit Malthouse, who brokered the proposal, the idea is to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement in order to replace the backstop with alternative technological arrangements designed to prevent the return of a hard border in Ireland.

It is based on proposals set out in a paper published in September by the European Research Group, titled The Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland post-Brexit.

Malthouse told the BBC’s Westminster Hour: “The EU has been saying for some time that it wants to know what the House of Commons wants, and on Tuesday night that is what the prime minister delivered. My job is to give her some options.”

Will an alternative work?

The EU “has grown increasingly frustrated that the UK seems insistent on revisiting questions that were discussed extensively at the negotiation table before the 585-page withdrawal treaty was agreed in November”, says Politico.

Indeed, one EU official described the compromise to The Guardian as a “bonkers no-deal plan”, reflecting a consensus that it is a non-starter. 

The EU’s deputy chief negotiator, Sabine Weyand, said last week that the required technology does not exist, adding that negotiators had “looked at every border on this Earth, every border EU has with a third country - there’s simply no way you can do away with checks and controls”.

Another issue is whether the EU would even agree to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement talks. Writing in The Sunday Times, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney repeated what many EU leaders have also warned in recent days: “The EU will not renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and there will be no withdrawal agreement without the backstop.”

What technological solutions are being considered?

The European Research Group (ERG) has outlined a “unique solution” involving a mix of technology and a simplifying of custom procedures in its report.

Hans Maessen, one of report authors, told the BBC that “no checks at the border” would be needed, with inspections carried out at warehouses instead.

But as the broadcaster points out, “the EU requires physical inspections on certain goods at the point where they enter the single market”.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show this weekend that this problem could be resolved provided the EU showed “a bit of goodwill”.

But the EU’s Weyand was quick to rubbish this claim on Twitter, saying to do so would be a “dereliction of duty”.

Will Theresa May take the proposal to the EU?

In an article published in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday, May suggested a liberal interpretation of the Brady amendment.

“Graham Brady, whose amendment MPs united around, made it clear that while replacing the backstop with alternative arrangements was one option, he would also be happy with the current backstop if there was a time limit or unilateral exit mechanism,” she wrote.

But Tory MP Baker said that he and other Conservative Brexiteers had only backed the amendment on the understanding that May would pursue the Malthouse compromise.

“As far as I’m concerned, the Malthouse compromise is the only game in town if we’re going to reach an agreement in Brussels,” Baker said. He warned that anything other than the reopening of the Withdrawal Agreement would result in “a further substantial defeat” for the PM’s Brexit deal.

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