Imagine you’re surrounded by three moving walls, each closing in at a different speed. This is Thesesa May’s Brexit policy. She hopes they can somehow stop each other, leaving her a little space to be able to have completed Brexit, and resign with dignity.
But it is becoming clear that no such solution is possible. The crunch is coming, and the mechanism is the Northern Irish border. It is a crunch entirely of the Prime Minister’s own making.
Brexiteers won their referendum without devoting serious thought to what Brexit would look like. That much was necessary to keep together their coalition of globalists and nativists, rich and poor, ideologues for whom the EU was a modern tyranny (some of them would even call it the EUSSR) and people who just didn’t think Britain really belonged there.
One of the problems brought up in the campaign was the Northern Irish border. To avoid being accused of recklessly reviving sectarian conflict on UK territory, and poisoning the political atmosphere with their nearest neighbour, they promised that Brexit would not mean a “hard” border (that is, a border with customs posts for terrorists to shoot at).
There are some Brexits consistent with avoiding such a hard border. They are ones in which the regulatory regime of Northern Ireland is kept sufficiently aligned with that in the Republic of Ireland, so customs, VAT, sanitary and phytosanitary, inspections are not needed.
This could be done either by the UK staying in the Single Market and Customs Union, or by giving Northern Ireland a special status that enabled it to be aligned even if the rest of the UK was not. All this became clear from the agreement between the UK and EU reached on 8 December last year, and was spelled out in detail by the EU’s draft protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland published in March.
But the government wants to leave the Single Market and Customs Union. The first in order to have its own immigration policy; the second in order to have its own trade policy. This leaves special status.
Special status for Northern Ireland does not however eliminate the border, it just displaces it. Instead of customs checks being carried out on land crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic, they would have to be carried out as goods crossed the Irish Sea between ports like Belfast and the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland wouldn’t have its own trade and economic regulation policy: it would have to follow the EU’s.
Creating a trade border inside the UK (on the Irish sea) might be a fairly radical solution to avoiding a hard border in Ireland, while at the same time enabling the island of Great Britain to have its own trade and immigration policy, but it could be done. Northern Ireland currently has a unique constitutional status because of the Good Friday Agreement that brought the conflict with the IRA to an end, and, in the past had so much autonomy from Westminster that it even had its own Prime Minister for almost five decades of the twentieth century. The UK has never been an entirely unitary state.
But in June 2017, in order to hold onto power having failed to win a majority in last year’s general election, Theresa May struck a “confidence and supply” deal with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Though the DUP mostly supports Brexit, its main concern is ensuring Northern Ireland remains in the UK. It is accordingly opposed to a Brexit that introduces new barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
If by insisting on leaving the Customs Union and Single market, May ruled out one kind of Brexit that would avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, by agreeing a deal with the DUP, she ruled out the other.
Meanwhile, the EU has made the avoidance of a hard border in Ireland a requirement of there being any Brexit deal at all. This creates the third encroaching wall. Pro-European Tories, will not support leaving the EU without a deal (and, indeed, it is likely they won’t support one that keeps the UK outside the customs union either).
May’s problem is that she doesn’t have enough support in parliament to conclude a Brexit that the EU is willing to offer. Pro-Brexit Tories will oppose one that keeps the UK as a whole inside the Customs Union; anti-Brexit Tories will oppose one that takes the UK out. Meanwhile, the DUP are against one that creates different economic regimes in Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, while the EU is insisting that Northern Ireland’s economic regime stays aligned to the EU’s.
At the time of writing (but things may have changed by the time the article appears in print), it seems that the House of Commons will vote on these issues in June. It is difficult indeed to see how Theresa May’s government can survive them. It’s time to prepare for another election.