EU to UK on Brexit: All your Northern Ireland are belong to us

The precarious Brexit negotiations turned toxic over the last twenty-four hours, and the standoff between the UK and EU might threaten Theresa May’s coalition government. Yesterday, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator warned that unless the British government came up with a plan for a “frictionless border” between Northern Ireland and EU member Republican of Ireland, the EU would continue to control trade policy in the British province after Brexit:

The European Union on Wednesday laid out how it would regulate Northern Ireland’s trade if no better solution was found in the fast-closing window before Britain’s departure from the EU, prompting furious reactions in London and Belfast.

Brussels’ chief negotiator Michel Barnier, presenting the EU’s draft of an exit treaty for Britain, denied that the proposal, intended to avoid a disruptive EU-UK “hard border” on the island of Ireland, would loosen Northern Ireland’s constitutional ties to the rest of the United Kingdom.

But British leader Theresa May told her parliament that no prime minister could ever agree to these terms as they would “threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK”.

The hardline Democratic Unionist (DUP) allies in Belfast on whom she relies for a slim majority denounced the EU draft as “constitutionally unacceptable” and “economically catastrophic” as it would distance Northern Ireland from mainland Britain.

Barnier’s proposal touched off a crisis in London, as measured by the main website page of the Tory-leaning Telegraph earlier this morning. The paper headlined its coverage of the plan by calling it “a plot to deny democracy,” and accused British “Remainers” of using Northern Ireland as a proxy:

Former Tory prime minister John Major wants a second vote on Brexit, while his successor Tony Blair says that May’s insistence on Brexit could tear Northern Ireland apart again. The only way to avoid a hard border with Ireland and to sustain the Good Friday Agreement, Blair argues, is to remain in the common market:

Tony Blair has said Theresa May has no hope of delivering her negotiating aims if she takes the UK out of the single market and customs union, saying she instead risked sacrificing peace in Northern Ireland “on the altar of Brexit”.

The former prime minister, who is to make a major intervention in Brussels before on Friday, said the Irish border crisis illustrated the “central dilemma” facing the UK and said it was “sickening” to hear senior politicians of the Good Friday agreement. …

Talking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “On John Major’s speech, I really think people should read it and study it. It is heartfelt and very analytical as to what the problems are.

“Neither he nor I want to make her [May’s] position difficult. This has gone far beyond that. The problem that she has is that there is no way round the dilemma: what she thinks is that it is possible to get the Europeans to give us access to Europe’s markets without the same obligations that the rest of Europe has in the single market. That is not possible.

“It is not a question of a tough negotiation or a weak negotiation. It is literally is not going to happen.”

May finds herself in a potential catch-22. If she insists on keeping Northern Ireland fully within Brexit, as her DUP partners in her coalition insist, Brexit may not happen at all — and Tories will get punished for the failure in a new election. If she allows the EU to control the trade in Northern Ireland to avoid the hard border and get the Brexit deal, DUP will abandon her and May will have to call for new elections that she’d likely lose. The EU sees the advantage here and has absolutely no incentive to pull May’s chestnuts out of the fire, especially after her government reneged on a tentative deal over EU migrants.

So far, this crisis has gone largely unnoticed by the US media, but the Washington Post picked up on it this morning. They seem surprised, however, that Northern Ireland would become the stumbling block for Brexit, calling it “unexpected”:

This vexing issue of the Irish border was hardly mentioned before Britain’s historic June 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

But the balance between Republicans and Unionists, and between north and south on the Irish island, remains fragile and unsettled 20 years after the sectarian violence ended with the Good Friday Agreement.

May is squeezed by the border issue in part because she failed to achieve a majority in the last British elections and so had to enter into a soft coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, made up of Protestants loyal to Britain and the monarch, who oppose any move that would sever ties with the United Kingdom.

This was hardly unexpected. It seemed obvious at the time that the Tories would have problems with both Northern Ireland and Scotland during Brexit, which was perhaps one reason why S&P lowered the UK’s bond rating after the referendum in 2016. The Scots had just narrowly voted against independence when Brexit became popular, and Scotland’s voters opposed the idea, which has led to calls for a second referendum there. However, the pragmatic issues of border control and trade on the island of Ireland didn’t take much prognostication to see; it only took a passing familiarity with a map and with recent history. The Republic of Ireland understandably doesn’t want to return to the old days of a hard border that they will be required to enforce. The Good Friday Agreement resolved most of those issues in 1998, under the auspices of joint EU membership and common US alliances.

Now that this is approaching a full diplomatic rupture and a constitutional crisis in the UK, the Trump administration may need to smooth the waters a bit by using that influence on all sides. Trump himself seems to be cheering Brexit, so he has some skin in the game in making the nationalist/anti-multilateralist position succeed. However, Trump has yet to appoint key positions of influence in this conflict, including the ambassadorial slots to Ireland and the EU as well as the special envoy to Northern Ireland. Those positions need to get filled and confirmed ASAP, while settlements of mutual benefit might still be achievable.

Meanwhile, EU president Donald Tusk offered a challenge back to May this morning:

Before lunching with May in London on the eve of her setting out her vision of an EU-UK trade deal, EU summit chair Tusk said Wednesday’s proposal to keep Northern Ireland in an EU customs union, creating possible barriers with the British mainland, was the best option to avoid a “hard border” with EU member Ireland.

“Until now, no-one has come up with anything wiser than that,” the European Council president told a conference in Brussels. “In a few hours I will be asking in London whether the UK government has a better idea, that would be as effective in preventing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.”

May will give a speech later today which is expected to offer an answer to this challenge. Can she navigate the treacherous Brexit waters and find dry land? Stay tuned.

Note: Headline allusion explained here.