Britain’s Brexit discussions with the European Union are reaching a head, as time runs out in the run-up to March’s deadline for beginning the implementation process. Factionalism among conservatives in the United Kingdom and the advantage this offers to EU diplomats in Brussels has mired the negotiations in increasingly hostile and apparently endless debate. At the center of it all is British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is facing a storm on all fronts. May, a conservative Tory, has been denounced by hardline Brexiters in her own party who have begun to challenge her position as prime minister. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Union Party (DUP), whose 10 Members of Parliament are central to Tory control of the government, has likewise challenged May, who is using Northern Ireland’s “regulatory alignment” as a bargaining chip with the European Union. Despite the turmoil at home, Brussels will certainly remain May’s most difficult problem: happy to watch the pro-Brexit UK government implode, European lawmakers will no doubt make good use of whatever leverage May’s own political problems offer.
Despite increasing attacks on her administration, May has continued to insist that progress is being made in talks with the EU. “The shape of the deal across the vast majority of the withdrawal agreement is now clear,” she said on Monday. She described having negotiated terms for citizens rights, financial settlement, the implementation period, and the “particular rights” of Northern Ireland. “95 percent of the withdrawal agreement and its protocol are now settled,” she said.
The Northern Ireland issue is, in her words, that five percent “sticking point.” Indeed, Northern Ireland’s position in the eventual Brexit agreement has become the immediate crux of the negotiations. The problem is the issue of the “backstop,” proposed during negotiations by the European Union, which would prevent at all costs the establishment of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Finding a way to negotiate the flow of goods, capital, services, and people or labor (i.e. the “Four Freedoms” of the European Union) over the island of Ireland, while preserving Northern Ireland’s full exit from the EU, has become the major challenge for May’s government.
The backstop provides the guarantee that, should the UK fail to negotiate a deal that satisfies the required laxity of the Irish border, Northern Ireland will remain indefinitely “aligned” to the EU single market and customs union at the end of Britain’s 21-month allotted time for exiting the EU. In other words (although it is unclear), Northern Ireland would retain its common external tariff with the EU and preserve its access to partially or entirely tariff-free European commodities.
For Brexiteers, this means that Northern Ireland would essentially remain a part of the European Union. The glaring problem here is that May and the Brexit hardliners pulling her to the right have insisted that Northern Ireland cannot be in a separate customs union from Britain when all is said and done. What’s more, Northern Ireland’s belonging to the EU customs union would necessitate the construction of a “hard border” between itself and Britain, another prospect that has been thoroughly rejected by the May and the Brexiteers.
Having rejected the EU’s backstop offer, May suggested that after the 21-month exiting period the entire UK, including both Britain and Northern Ireland, would be allotted a temporary stay in shared customs territory with the EU. That is to say that May would be committing to extend exit negotiations by, in her words, “a matter of months.” This has angered pro-Brexit lawmakers in Britain, insofar as it anticipates an indefinite tabling of the decisive economic action required to exit the European Union. EU negotiators in Brussels entertained the idea, but rejected it as a replacement for the separate Northern Ireland backstop. “It was really interesting,” said one EU source with knowledge of the proposal. “The UK hasn’t formally requested it and the idea has always been there floating around. We don’t really know why the prime minister said what she did.”
The EU, along with Irish and anti-Brexit British politicians, insists that a hard border cannot return to the Irish island. In an interview last week on Al Jazeera, former Cabinet Minister under Tony Blair Andrew Adonis said that the situation risked a “return to paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.” The prolonged violence across Ireland during the late-20th century Troubles – most notably in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland – is the source of the unique problem of the Irish border. At a summit meeting last week, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar brought in a copy of the Irish Times with a feature covering a 1972 civilian bombing in order to argue that the development of a hard border between the two Irelands risked a return to that era of chaos and violence. “I just wanted to make sure that there was no sense in the room that in any way anybody in Ireland or in the Irish government was exaggerating the real risk of a return to violence in Ireland,” he said.
As the government very publicly prepares itself for a disastrous exiting process, the voices of anti-Brexit MPs demanding a second public referendum have become louder and louder. May, however, has held fast to her rejection of that idea, arguing instead that the backstop and talk of a UK-wide indefinite stay in the EU customs union is only planning ahead for the worst-case scenario. “They had that people’s vote, they decided to leave the European Union,” she said at a meeting of Parliament on Monday, “and I believe it is our duty, I believe it is part of the issue of faith and trust in the integrity of politicians, that we deliver on what people voted for and that we deliver to leave the European Union.”
The seemingly endless negotiations and fears of a no-deal result have exacerbated tensions within the Tory party, and some see the parliamentary ousting of May as an imminent possibility. Dozens of no-confidence votes have reportedly been submitted by Tory MPs. If and when that number reaches 48 it will initiate a vote to remove May as prime minister. That, however, would require a 156-vote majority to be successful – possible, in other words, although the chances of it happening anytime soon remain somewhat slim. For now, May is urging her colleagues to have patience as she maneuvers the tangled web in which she finds herself. Politically isolated as she is in her desperate efforts to strike a deal, you could say that Theresa May completed her own, private Brexit a long time ago.