"Humiliation": May's Brexit proposal bombs in Salzburg

The risk of a no-deal crash-out Brexit soared yesterday after the UK proposal for an end to its EU membership got laughed out of Salzburg. Theresa May brought her Chequers proposal to the EU conference as the UK’s final offer, but European leaders peremptorily rejected it out of hand. That leaves May in a delicate position back home, where Brexit hardliners might gain the upper hand among Tories now:

Prime Minister Theresa May went to dine with European leaders this week to pitch her compromise proposals for a soft departure from the union and its trading bloc, but she ran into a wall of criticism on Thursday, hearing her counterparts declare her Brexit plan unworkable.

The beleaguered British leader was in Salzburg, Austria, to try to convince a tough audience that the United Kingdom could remain so closely aligned with European Union rules and regulations that it would allow for the continuation of the “frictionless” trade the modern economy is built upon.

That didn’t go as well as she’d hoped:

May had warned European leaders that her plan — agreed to by her divided cabinet in July at the prime minister’s official country manor, Chequers — was the only way forward. But Macron countered, “The Chequers plan cannot be take it or leave it.”

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, said May’s proposal to create a British-European free-trade regime covering agriculture and goods — but not services — was not acceptable. …

Tusk said May has just four weeks to amend her plan — or perhaps face the dreaded prospect of leaving the European bloc with no deal — the so-called doomsday scenario.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned, “There is still a lot of work to do on the question of how future trade relations will look.”

The most memorable moment of the Salzburg conference came not from May but from French president Emmanuel Macron:

The British media declared Salzburg a “humiliation” and a “disaster.” The blame fell largely on May, but a few outlets like the Sun defended May against “EU Dirty Rats,” noting that “Euro mobsters ambush[ed]” May. The Daily Mirror might have the most succinct sum-up: “Your Brexit’s broken.”

The Irish Times scoffs at the “ambush” rhetoric. May got ambushed by her own machinations, Denis Staunton argues:

It was Britain, not the EU, that hyped the Salzburg meeting in advance as a moment of truth for Brexit, spinning that it was May’s chance to sell the Chequers plan directly to the other leaders. Two days before the meeting, Brexit secretary Dominic Raab suggested that the choice was between Chequers and no deal and said that Britain’s “unionist parliament” could never accept a backstop that treated Northern Ireland differently than the rest of the UK for customs.

May repeated that uncompromising message in an article in the German daily Die Welt on Wednesday morning and again to the leaders that night. And on Thursday morning she told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that there could be no deal on the backstop by next month’s EU summit.

May needed the EU leaders to remain at least non-committal on Chequers and to allow the wrangling over the Border to drift on until a special Brexit summit in November. But her intransigent message at Salzburg provoked them into plain speaking, declaring Chequers dead and warning that there would be no November summit and no withdrawal agreement without progress on the backstop.

The prime minister’s allies sought on Friday morning to play down the scale of the setback she suffered at Salzburg, insisting that Chequers remained a basis for negotiation and talking tough about the Border. But nobody in government or in the Conservative Party will be in any doubt that it has been an utter humiliation for May and that the Brexit negotiations have taken an important turn.

Trying to demonstrate command back home today, May declared, “We are at an impasse,” complaining that the EU didn’t offer any counterproposal to the Chequers plan:

May accused the EU of attempting to divide the UK by forcing Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union, an outcome which she said “no [British] prime minister could accept.” May said that the two sides should have respected each other rather than rejecting outright any proposal without “detailed” objections for later negotiations.  “The EU should be clear,” May declared, that she will not break up the UK to cut a bad deal. “As I said before,” May emphasized, “no deal is better than a bad deal.”

A no-deal Brexit is almost certainly going to result now, one way or another, and it was likely inevitable anyway. Even if May holds off a challenge from hardliner Tories, the Chequers plan and its ambiguities surrounding the Irish border was likely the best she could have offered. The deal has always foundered on this particular point; if there was no Irish border and no Good Friday Agreement, most of the rest of this deal would fall into place. Until a clear agreement on how to handle the border situation emerges, it’s impossible to move forward. And with May’s government dependent on the ten seats from the Democratic Unionist Party, May’s hands are largely tied.

May’s Brexit minister recognized this, sending out yet another assurance that her government will produce a border plan soon … sometime:

Britain is to set out new proposals to reassure Dublin it would not get a “hard border” with the province of Northern Ireland when the UK leaves the European Union next year, Brexit minister Dominic Raab said on Friday.

But he declined to say whether they would be published before the ruling Conservative Party’s annual conference which starts on Sept. 30. …

The EU has insisted on a “backstop” clause in any Brexit treaty. This would keep Northern Ireland under EU economic oversight if London and Brussels cannot agree a trade pact to keep UK-EU borders open after a transition period ends in 2020 – an idea that Prime Minister Theresa May and a small party in the province that props up her minority government oppose.

“What we do want to do is resolve that in a sensible way – we’ve got to come up with a deliverable solution that works for the communities in Northern Ireland and indeed in the republic,” Raab added.

Ireland has been asking for this ever since the passage of Brexit, but so far nothing concrete has emerged. When the UK leaves the customs union, a customs border has to be erected somewhere. If it’s not on the international border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, then the only other options are to put it in the Irish Sea or to convince Dublin to throw its lot in with London rather than Brussels. And that simply won’t happen, now or anytime in the next eight hundred years.

In other words, get ready for the UK to crash out of the UK. And get ready for some serious tensions in Ireland, where the impact will be the hardest.