Theresa May has to satisfy interests in Dublin, Belfast and Brussels on Northern Ireland’s future status if Brexit talks are to progress this year.
On Monday, a draft deal Theresa May brokered with European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker on the Irish border issue was torpedoed by the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her minority government in Westminster. The UK Prime Minister is now trying to pick up the political pieces from this humiliation before going back to Brussels for a last-gasp attempt to salvage ‘sufficient progress’ from the first phase of the Brexit negotiations.
May had reportedly been prepared to accept that Northern Ireland would effectively remain in the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market by retaining ‘regulatory alignment’ with the Republic of Ireland. This would have satisfied Dublin and Brussels’ requirements by avoiding a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland, but went too far for the DUP, who are opposed to any divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The stakes are high: May has just a day or two to find a solution that satisfies the DUP, her own party, and the EU27, including the Republic of Ireland, who effectively hold a veto on this issue. If a breakthrough does not happen in the coming days, prospects increase of no final deal and a hard, and potentially disorderly Brexit.
This is because any eventual second phase discussions on the future UK-EU relationship may then be reduced to a matter of a handful of months. The next opportunity to have the EU27 give the green light to negotiations on the future relationship will not come until the European Council meeting in March, and Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier wants talks wrapped up by October 2018 to allow for ratification before the two years of the Article 50 period end in March 2019.
May is walking a diplomatic tight rope with the Irish border issue because of her political pact with the DUP
Despite half a dozen rounds of UK-EU negotiations since the Summer, progress has been very slow on the status of the border between the Republic of Ireland (which will remain in the EU) and Northern Ireland (which will leave the Brussels-based club along with the rest of the United Kingdom).
Earlier this year, European Parliament Chief Negotiator Guy Verhofstadt and Barnier poured cold water on the UK’s negotiating position on Ireland, which called for the continuation of the current infrastructure-free border even if Northern Ireland left the Single Market and Customs Union. Verhofstadt described London's positions as a “fantasy”, while Barnier argued that UK officials still don’t understand that “frictionless trade is not possible outside the European Single Market and Customs Union”.
Some of the rhetoric from Verhofstadt and Barnier is aimed at turning the screws on London in the negotiations, and could be more constructive. But public infighting in the UK Cabinet since June’s election has demonstrated that its Brexit plans are in disarray, and that it has still not reconciled itself to the basic trade-offs between sovereignty and close economic ties.
On the Irish issue, specifically, May is on a diplomatic tight rope because of her political pact with the DUP. But their position is also supported by most Conservatives MPs, partly because allowing Northern Ireland to be treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom would provide ammunition to Scottish and Welsh nationalists who might also seek special dispensation.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that if Northern Ireland was allowed to operate under different rules there is “surely no good practical reason” why other parts of the UK could not do the same. This is a message echoed by Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones and London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Taken overall, significant distance still needs to be bridged in the coming days if UK-EU negotiations are not to go off track in December. With UK ministers doubling down on efforts to start second-phase talks after the mid-month European Council meeting, a big breakthrough on Ireland could now be on the horizon. But failure to move forward in the coming days will delay already tough overall timelines, increasing the prospect of a hard and potentially calamitous Brexit.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.