Theresa May’s Irish answer poses new Brexit questions
THE lunch Theresa May had with Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s president, in Brussels on December 4th was billed as a make-or-break one. Britain’s prime minister had to concede enough ground over outstanding issues in the first phase of the Brexit negotiations, setting the terms of divorce from the European Union, to persuade Mr Juncker to recommend to EU leaders at next week’s summit that “sufficient progress” had been made to start a second phase of talks, on the future relationship. In the event, the lunch fell short of a deal, but both leaders are promising to reach agreement later in the week.
Mrs May’s manoeuvring has, however, kicked a new hornet’s nest at home. She had already upset hardline Brexiteers with concessions on the rights of EU citizens in Britain and by offering as much as £45bn-55bn ($60bn-75bn) to settle Britain’s exit bill, the two other parts of the divorce. But it was the third issue, avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic after Brexit, which was the most difficult. Although London has argued that this can be settled only in the context of a future trade relationship, the Dublin government, supported by the other 26 EU countries, insists that it needs written guarantees before it will agree to move to phase two.
Faced with the risk of failure at the EU summit, Mrs May is slowly giving more ground. A plan to promise to maintain “continued regulatory alignment” where that is necessary to avoid a border was promptly leaked. This term is vaguer than the original form or words, which was “no regulatory divergence”, and both are still some way short of keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market and customs union. But many interpret all such wording as meaning that, for most goods and services, Northern Ireland will stay subject to the same broad regulations as the EU, even if the rest of the United Kingdom diverges from them.
Such an arrangement might well avert a hard border in Ireland. But it raises instead the prospect of a border in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. If, for instance, Britain were to adopt different rules on food safety in future, some controls would be needed to stop food moving unchecked between the two. Unionists in Northern Ireland would bridle at that. Indeed, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose support Mrs May needs for her parliamentary majority in Westminster, announced even before the Brussels lunch was over that it would not accept any deal that treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Yet it seems likely that by the end of the week Mrs May will propose just that, because it is impossible to resolve the Irish border issue without close regulatory alignment. The prime minister may calculate that the DUP will not bring down her government over the issue, because (like her own backbenchers) its MPs fear a government led by Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn even more than a post-Brexit border. But her negotiations on the matter have stirred up others as well. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, and Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, were both quick to demand that their anti-Brexit voters should benefit from similar treatment to Northern Irish ones. Mrs May could find that placating Dublin over the Irish border creates problems elsewhere in the United Kingdom.