The United Kingdom and European Union have finally reached a preliminary agreement on the terms of their divorce — and it just might force Theresa May’s government to break up.
On Tuesday, the U.K. prime minister confirmed that her government had reached a Brexit deal (or, more precisely, a draft agreement on the “technical” terms of a Brexit deal) with E.U. negotiators. The precise details of that deal are not yet public. But according to the BBC, it includes “commitments over citizens’ rights after Brexit, a proposed 21-month transition period after the U.K.’s departure on 29 March 2019 and details of the so-called £39bn ‘divorce bill.’”
The most significant provision in the draft agreement, however, concerns a “backstop” for preserving an open border between Northern Ireland (which, as part of the United Kingdom, would be leaving the European Union) and Ireland (which would remain an E.U. member state). For weeks, negotiators have struggled to reach a mutually satisfying solution to the problem of the Irish border. And it isn’t hard to see why.
Free movement and trade between the U.K. and Ireland was a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement, and thus, a pillar of peace in the region ever since. Thousands of people cross the border daily for work, and many companies have built business models and supply chains that depend on the maintenance of seamless commerce between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Thus, many in May’s Tory Party insist that any Brexit deal must keep that border open.
But Ireland is not leaving the E.U., and the E.U. is, among other things, a customs union — a bloc of countries with synchronized trade rules, which applies uniform tariffs on goods produced outside the union. If Britain exits that union, then Ireland would be forced to impose tariffs on products produced in Northern Ireland, and the border between the two would harden.
The U.K. could leave the E.U. while remaining in the customs union — currently, Turkey isn’t a part of the former, but still claims membership in the latter. But staying in the customs union would bar the U.K. from brokering its own bilateral trade agreements, while also compelling it to respect the European Court of Justice as the final authority in its trade disputes.
Thus, many “Brexiteers” in May’s party insist that any Brexit deal must include the U.K.’s withdrawal from the customs union.
Squaring this circle has not been easy. The E.U. had offered to allow Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union, while letting the rest of the United Kingdom go its own way. But that arrangement would have established a regulatory and customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain — a prospect that May’s allies in the Democratic Unionist Party find untenable, and that plenty of other Tories see as an attack on the U.K.’s unity and sovereignty.
Now, May has reportedly found a solution to the border conundrum that she believes both the E.U. — and her partners in parliament — can live with. As Business Insider reports:
UK and EU negotiators agreed that there will be a UK-wide “backstop” if they fail to negotiate a trade deal that negates the need for border checks on the island of Ireland before the end of the two-year Brexit transition period.
The backstop will take the shape of a UK-wide customs union with the EU, with Northern Ireland sticking to some of the European single market. This would guarantee no border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic. However, the backstop is not set to come with a fixed end-date … [i]nstead, it will come with a “review clause” for deciding when it can come to an end.
In other words: Both sides have agreed to maintain a rough approximation of the status quo, and pretend that the Tories’ mutually exclusive Brexit demands can still, theoretically, be fully implemented at some unspecified future date.
May spent Tuesday evening attempting to sell this plan to individual members of her administration, before a full cabinet meeting on Wednesday. As of last month, a contingent of cabinet officials — including Brexit secretary Dominic Raab — was reportedly planning to resign in protest, if May agreed to a “backstop” with no fixed end date.
Even if May succeeds in putting down that mutiny, her chances of beating back a parliamentary rebellion look grim.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said Tuesday that his party “couldn’t possibly vote for” the deal — which is problematic, since the Conservatives rely on the DUP’s ten votes for their majority coalition. What’s more, many of May’s own Conservatives are sure to oppose the deal; among them, the party’s most ardent Brexiteers, and its most recalcitrant remainers. Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson called May’s draft agreement “utterly unacceptable to anyone who believes in democracy” on Tuesday — while pro-remain MPs argued that democracy required May to subject her deal to a second referendum.
If the U.K. does not ink a deal with the E.U. by March 29, it will crash out of the union and into economic anarchy. It’s possible that the specter of a debased pound, chaotic ports, and food shortages will transform political realities in London between now and then. But at the moment, it is difficult to see how May can possibly get a majority of parliament to vote for a diplomatically viable form of Brexit — not least, because Brexit is an objectively terrible idea. Given a choice between claiming ownership of an actually-existing Brexit, and deriding any agreement put before the House of Commons as a betrayal of the one true Brexit (or, of the emerging pro-remain majority), few savvy politicians would choose the former unless they absolutely had to. And Labor MPs, Tory backbenchers, and the DUP simply do not have that obligation; only Theresa May, and any MPs who wish to stay on the Spice Girls’ good side, do.