May: Help me, Obi-wan EU-bie, you're my only hope

Fresh off from staving off one political disaster, Theresa May jumped right into the one neither she nor the UK can avoid. With a Brexit deal that can’t pass Parliament in hand, May went back to the EU to beg for some concessions on the Northern Ireland backstop that threatens to rope the UK into the customs union indefinitely – with no say in its operation.


That went as well as one might imagine:

Wounded by a battle with her own MPs, British Prime Minister Theresa May pleaded Thursday with EU leaders for concessions that might save her Brexit deal, while playing down hopes of a swift breakthrough. …

The other 27 EU leaders have agreed to draft a reassuring political statement, but remain firmly opposed to renegotiating a hard-won withdrawal deal they endorsed less than three weeks ago.

The Brexit deal envisions a full break by 2020 after a transition period. That break creates an international customs border in Ireland where none exists today. Immigration, as well as trade in goods and services, will have to comply with what will be two different legal regimes across an international border with two supreme sovereignties where one exists today (the EU, with both the UK and the Republic of Ireland as members). No one — no one — has figured out a way to make that work without a hard border and trade checkpoints, the emergence of which is likely to set off sectarian violence in Northern Ireland all over again. Ireland and the EU refuse to agree to any deal that will create a hard border on the island again, full stop.

Thus May had to agree to a “backstop” plan if no solution is found before the final break of Brexit. As of now, that backstop keeps Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK subject to the EU’s trade regulations. CNN has a brief explanation today of the political minefield that the backstop creates:


The problems come if there’s no agreement on what to do after the transition period ends in 2020. Enter the Irish “backstop,” an insurance policy designed to avoid a hard border if no other solution to police the border are found by that time. …

The crucial sticking point is that the Brexit deal, as it stands, states that neither side can leave the backstop unilaterally. Brexiteers hate the idea that the EU would hold a power of veto over the UK — and the backstop may never end.

But others, including the Irish government, argue that the backstop would be meaningless if Britain could tear it up at will. But there is little sign that EU leaders will make any concessions to May on the deal substantial enough to win over her critics at home.

That’s not quite accurate; there’s no sign whatsoever that the EU will budge on this point. That was true before May got the present agreement with the EU, and it’s true to this day. Just as they said before the Tory’s no-confidence vote took place, EU leaders rejected May’s call to reopen negotiations. They are, however, willing to send a sweetly worded memo explaining that they’re not enthusiastic about the backstop either:

According to European diplomats, the proposed summit statement would declare that any backstop “would only be in place for a short period and only as long as strictly necessary”.

It will add: “The union stands ready to examine whether any further assurances can be provided. Such assurances will not change or contradict the withdrawal agreement.”

This would not be the legally binding promise, sought by Brexiteers, that the backstop would not be used to bind the UK into a customs union indefinitely.


In the absence of an open-border solution, it would do just that, and the Brexiteers know it. Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar made that clear in a meeting with May on Tuesday:

After meeting May one-on-one, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar stressed that the backstop must be part of the deal.

“As the EU we are very keen to offer explanations, assurances, clarifications, anything that may assist MPs to understand the agreement, and hopefully to support it. But the backstop is not on the table,” Varadkar said.

If May goes looking to Norway for help, she’s likely to come up empty as well:

Some Brexit supporters in Britain have touted a so-called “Norway-plus” scenario, whereby the world’s fifth largest economy would emulate the Scandinavian country in finding its own tailored deal with the European Union. …

But even so, in Oslo, there would be low prospects of consensus for any potential U.K. bid to rejoin the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) – between Norway, Iceland, Lichtenstein Switzerland and the European Union – which it left in 1973.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg did tell Reuters that Oslo could lend a hand, but there would be little support from others in her governing coalition or the opposition Labour party, Norway’s biggest party, on a major issue needing consensus.

Politicians say the nations’ interests are too diverse – even though Britain is Norway’s biggest trading partner – and they worry U.K. entry to EFTA could swamp other members.


The UK has almost five times the population of the combined EFTA nations. They might have similar interests and similar skepticism of the EU, but Norway and the other countries can do math. Besides, the EFTA option won’t help with regaining sovereignty, especially over immigration (with EFTA’s free-movement agreement with the EU). All it does is transfer the same multinational sovereignty over trade and immigration from one organization to another, perhaps with a bit more clout than before but no national control over those policies. Even just emulating EFTA on their own doesn’t solve the hard-border problem in Ireland. That’s inescapable and irresolvable, or seemingly so after two-plus years of desperate searching for an answer.

The only real options for Brexit are now a hard exit without any sort of deal with the EU, creating the hard border in Ireland and hard feelings on both sides, and delaying or abandoning Brexit altogether. The first is likely to accelerate a process of disunion with Northern Ireland and Scotland (for very different reasons), while the latter will cost the Tories their majority in the next election. Perhaps they’d be better off with a second referendum to see just where voters are at after watching two-plus years of futility and complications arising from the first Brexit referendum. That may be all the political cover May can get.


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