Theresa May seeks to rescue Brexit deal as Dublin says it won’t back down.
In theory, all it needs is one last heave to get over the line in time for a formal sign-off at next week’s European council summit. Both the commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Theresa May are publicly hopeful of reaching draft consensus again by Friday. They were within minutes of a deal on Monday, before the Democratic Unionist party sounded the alarm and put everything on hold.
In practice, the last-minute hitch changes everything for a number of reasons:
Cards have been shown
The first problem is that all sides have shown their hand. The Dublin government has admitted precisely what form of words is enough to provide assurance on the Irish border and anything less will now be seen by its electorate as a clear climbdown.
The DUP has called into doubt the Downing Street fiction that slippery language can solve the problem, making it even harder to fudge the issue in future.
Counties and customs
Inside the EU, both Ireland and Northern Ireland are part of the single market and customs union so share the same regulations and standards, allowing a soft or invisible border between the two.
Britain’s exit from the EU – taking Northern Ireland with it – risks a return to a hard or policed border. The only way to avoid this post-Brexit is for regulations on both sides to remain more or less the same in key areas including food, animal welfare, medicines and product safety.
Early drafts of the agreement Britain hoped to get signed off on Monday said there would be “no divergence” from EU rules that “support north-south cooperation”, later changed to “continued alignment” in a formulation that appeared to allow for subtle divergences.
But it raised new questions about who would oversee it and how disputes might be resolved. It was also clearly still a step too far for the DUP.
Britain’s PM May talks to EU Commission President Juncker during a EU leaders summit in Brussels And the UK government has signalled its willingness to bend on a number of hitherto implacable red lines; possibly merely whetting appetites in Brussels for more, not fewer, concessions in future.
The stakes are raised
The second concern is that Monday’s raised expectations of a deal have merely raised the stakes instead. The notion that Britain could simply walk away with no deal was already scarcely credible in Brussels, and although EU leaders are now even more acutely aware of May’s other weaknesses, Monday’s debacle will have done little to change the view that Downing Street is desperate for a deal.
Equally, the nature of the deadlock has intensified. As British officials begin talking the DUP down from the roof on Tuesday, they are no longer simply trying to solve the problem of how to keep the Irish border open. This is now about trying to convince them that Britain is not willing to abandon North Ireland in pursuit of Brexit at any cost.
The atmosphere is poisoned
As if mistrust between Belfast and London was not bad enough, the mood of unionist politicians toward Dublin is now positively glacial. The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, directly accused the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, of trying to use Brexit to break up the Good Friday peace agreement and split apart the union. Tensions north and south of the border are hardly new, but this will do nothing to reassure moderates on either side that things are not hurtling back toward the bad old days.
Politicians everywhere will also be much more wary of taking May at her word when she promises to deliver on future deals. When the government of the day cannot even keep its supposed allies on board at crucial moments, many will be wondering how long it can survive at all.
May’s bluff has been called
At a far deeper level, however, Monday’s rift exposes the faultline running through Britain’s Brexit strategy right from the start.
The government has always been reluctant to acknowledge the inevitable trade-off between maintaining economic and regulatory alignment with Europe and restoring sovereign independence. But the vexed question of Northern Ireland forced the contradictions of the cake-and-eat-it strategy out into the open.
No longer, can Downing Street pretend that one bit of the country can have a different deal from the rest of it, so instead it will be forced to grapple with the bigger question of whether Britain as a whole should remain part of the single market and customs union instead.
The Brexiters are emboldened
So far, Tory backbenchers have been unusually acquiescent in the face of provocations over the divorce bill and hints of a climbdown on the ECJ. But if there is one thing that will unite all sides of the party against its prime minister like no other it is the idea that Brexit could mean the worst of all worlds: no escape from Brussels red-tape, but even less ability to influence how it is produced than Britain has today.
Hardliners have also drawn comfort from the relative ease with which the DUP was able to exercise a veto over the process. Though the interests of unionists and Brexiters may not be perfectly aligned on the question of whether to treat Northern Ireland differently, they have common cause in opposing regulatory alignment in general. Combined with new-found opposition in Scotland, Wales and the Labour party, it leaves Theresa May perhaps the loneliest figure in politics.