Neil Sedaka was right after all — breaking up is oh, so hard to do. Theresa May faces a series of deadlines for votes this week in Parliament on Brexit, but looks as far away from a sellable deal as ever. Her office told reporters this morning that the talks with the EU over the Irish backstop have “deadlocked,” with Michel Barnier’s quasi-concessions over the weekend not changing many minds:
Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, spoke on the telephone on Sunday evening to “take stock”, but plans for the prime minister to visit the Belgian capital to sign off on any compromise are on hold.
“No further meetings at a political level are scheduled but both sides will remain in close contact this week”, a commission spokesman added on Monday. “The commission has made proposals on further assurances that the backstop, if used, will apply temporarily… It is now for the House of commons to make an important set of decisions this week”.
The EU refuses to budge on the British proposal for what it believes is an attempt to build a unilateral exit mechanism into the Irish backstop, the arrangement that would keep the UK in a customs union to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, is unlikely without such a concession to revise his legal opinion, given before the last vote on May’s deal, that the backstop could be in force “indefinitely”
If anything, the talks went backwards for May. Barnier and his team suggested a return to an earlier formulation on the backstop in which only Northern Ireland remained in the customs union if a solution to prevent a hard border could not be found. That would allow the rest of the UK to have its unilateral-exit option, but May’s Northern Ireland allies have rejected any such division as an attack on British sovereignty — as they did a year ago:
Barnier’s basic idea would keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s trade orbit, something already rejected previously by London in the hard-fought Brexit negotiations as weakening the province’s ties to the rest of the United Kingdom.
“The UK will not be forced into a customs union against its will,” Barnier said. “The EU will continue working intensively over the coming days to ensure that the UK leaves the EU with an agreement.” Britain aims to depart the bloc on March 29.
Barnier stressed that Britain would still need to keep the sensitive border between EU member state Ireland and the UK province of Northern Ireland free of controls, meaning any checks would need to carried out in the Irish Sea.
Sky News Northern Ireland correspondent David Blevins quoted Democratic Unionist Party sources as saying the Barnier proposal showed “no respect to the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom. It’s a non-starter.”
At this point, it looks like Brexit itself will be a non-starter in Parliament. The EU will not budge on the backstop, and that means either Parliament will have to accept the previous agreement with the EU, vote for a no-deal exit, or delay Brexit for more negotiations. Votes have been scheduled on all three options this week, part of May’s recent deal to allow Parliament votes before the March 29th deadline for the UK’s Article 50 exit. The first of those is scheduled for tomorrow, and appears to be heading for a defeat on the same scale May suffered last month.
But will any of those votes take place? Rumors are now swirling that May could try some parliamentary maneuvers to prevent any meaningful vote from taking place. That would give her a little more time for negotiation, but it also might spell the end of her office. Her own party would give her the heave-ho:
A number of senior Tory MPs have told me that if @theresa_may fails to honour her pledge to hold proper meaningful vote tomorrow and then – if she loses – votes on no-deal and Brexit delay, they would back a motion to hold her in contempt. She could not survive as PM, they say https://t.co/8JZJLX7SF0
— Robert Peston (@Peston) March 11, 2019
It’s unclear what a couple more days would do anyway. May has worked this deal for nearly three years, and the EU is not going to let the UK create a hard border in Ireland by default no matter what May tries. That has been a major defect in the Brexit plan since its inception; May’s ability to work around it ended when her snap election backfired and she wound up relying on the DUP for her parliamentary majority. With the Article 50 deadline just eighteen days away, there seems little chance that the EU will throw Ireland under the bus now, especially to throw May a lifeline instead.
The first of the votes comes tomorrow. Get ready for fireworks and for a lot of uncertainty when it comes — or if it comes at all.