With deadlines fast approaching for a Brexit agreement and a seemingly unresolvable impasse on the Irish border, Theresa May might have opted to punt — for as long as three years. Rather than cut off Northern Ireland from the UK’s trade policies or create a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, the UK may opt to stay within the EU’s trade rules through 2021 rather than exit in 2020 as originally planned, at least as the preferred “backstop” to a failure to resolve the border issue. That may leave everyone less than pleased, including some of the Prime Minister’s own constituencies.
Basically, it would be a Brexit in all but name for at least a year:
There’s a radical new option that Prime Minister Theresa May’s inner Brexit Cabinet has taken into consideration to address the intractable Irish border problem: keeping European Union customs rules for longer.
According to four people familiar with the matter, the 11 Cabinet ministers at the heart of setting Brexit policy spent much of their 90-minute meeting on Tuesday discussing the need for a new plan to ensure that there’s no return to frontier checks on goods moving between Ireland and Northern Ireland. …
The idea — already met with skepticism in Brussels — is that it would keep the U.K. aligned with some of EU trade rules for longer, as a backstop plan to avoid a crisis over the Irish border. This idea has now made its way up to the most senior levels in May’s Cabinet, with some members believing it has potential to resolve the impasse, according to the people.
Politico Europe scoffs at the idea a bit, but notes that it will play well with one important May constituency:
When is a customs union not a customs union? When it’s a “time-limited goods arrangement.”
With the Cabinet at odds over the U.K. government’s preferred option for a post-Brexit customs arrangement, British officials are exploring a new option that could provide “a bridge” to a deal. …
Such a deal also has the potential to keep the Democratic Unionist Party — whose MPs prop up May’s government — onside by avoiding a border in the Irish Sea while potentially winning Brexiteer support as a temporary “bridge” to the final position in which the whole of the U.K. exits the EU’s customs area.
“Basically it’s keeping in the external tariff until the new system is ready,” said one U.K. official. “It would have to include a sunset clause. Both sides would need this. The question is how you find the language to persuade the Irish.”
So far, Ireland’s Taoiseach seems to be reacting favorably … to an extension of the customs union. Leo Varadkar certainly won’t object to an extension of the status quo:
BREAKING: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says that the British Prime Minister Theresa May shd table a new proposal on the future customs relationship between the EU & UK within the next 2 wks, hints it cd see continued alignment btwn whole of UK and EU on customs into the future
— Tony Connelly (@tconnellyRTE) May 17, 2018
Beyond that, though, Varadkar threatens to oppose any proposal that leaves Ireland divided on customs policies. That would force the UK into a “hard Brexit” that will create all sorts of disruptions for both sides:
Varadkar said that the EU and Dublin had “yet to see anything that remotely approaches” a way out of the current impasse.
“By June we need to see substantial progress as the tánaiste [Varadkar’s deputy, Simon Coveney] and I have said on many occasions. The European council will review progress in June. The deadline of course for the withdrawal agreement is October, but if we are not making real and substantial progress by June then we need to seriously question whether we’re going to have a withdrawal agreement at all.” …
Varadkar said: “We need to have that backstop because that gives us the assurance that there will be no hard border on our island. So we stand by our position that there can be no withdrawal agreement without that backstop.
“If the UK wants to put forward alternatives … we’re willing to examine that. But we need to see it written down in black and white and know that its workable and legally operable. And we’ve yet to see anything that remotely approaches that.”
EU president Donald Tusk has repeatedly insisted that they will fully back Ireland on this issue and will not sign any agreement that results in a hard border on the island. That commitment hasn’t changed a whit during the period when the British government has tried to come up with alternatives to the EU-sponsored “backstop” of keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union. So far, they’ve come up empty, and the June deadline for new proposals is fast approaching.
This latest proposal doesn’t appear to rise to the level of a replacement, either. Instead, it looks more like a delay in order to give the UK more time to find a solution that will undo the Gordian knot into which Brexit has put them in Ireland. But the real question is whether there is a solution to this Gordian knot that doesn’t end up being the classic Alexandrian outcome of simply hacking right through it — the “hard Brexit” that the UK wants to avoid, resulting in the hard border by default that Ireland refuses to accept.
This has the potential for an interminable status. May has had almost two full years to come up with an answer already, and other than this delaying tactic, has come up empty. If they can’t come up with a mutually agreeable solution in another two years, then what? Three more years of being in the customs union to keep looking for another solution? That’s not likely to satisfy anyone, which is why Varadkar is demanding that the UK meet the current deadline.
Don’t expect the EU to drop the backstop already contained within their initial agreement with May’s government based on this can-kicking idea. They have little reason to let Brexiteers off the hook anyway, and the specter of more border issues in Ireland is a good reason to demand a real solution soon, rather than just a pledge to keep working on it. June’s going to be a mighty interesting month in London, Brussels, Dublin, and Belfast.