Brexit Talks Stall over the Irish Problem

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Posted on December 5, 2017

Prime Minister Theresa May was in Brussels yesterday with the expectation that there would be a breakthrough in Brexit negotiations. By late afternoon, the mood had unfortunately changed dramatically and the PM left Brussels with nothing. Her “partners” in government, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had derailed the talks.

So what happened?

While the full divorce bill and the rights of EU and UK nationals are likely to be settled, the border with Northern Ireland was always going to be difficult to resolve. The PM appears to have agreed to a solution with the Irish government, but it was rejected by the DUP, on whom she is reliant to prop up her minority government.

The DUP could not agree to a deal which would have included special terms for Northern Ireland, allowing it to remain within the EU single market and customs union. They were worried this concession would lead to a border between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland. For the DUP, this would be the beginning of a slide towards a unified Ireland, and therefore, wholly unacceptable.

So the PM has returned to the UK to look for another solution, one which will hopefully keep the Good Friday agreement alive. The Good Friday agreement implicitly includes an open border with the Irish Republic.

And the other devolved Administrations?

The notion of a concession to keep Northern Ireland within the customs union and single market was pounced upon by Scotland, Wales and even London who have all stated: “Us too. We voted to remain so we should be able to have the same special deal.” A Brexit without Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales or London is not much of a Brexit at all.

A week is a long time in politics.

This is a pivotal week for the PM. She needs to nail down the tricky Irish border question with language that can be agreed upon by the DUP, Irish Government and the EU. And she only has a few days to do this, as currently she has no way forward to start talking about the future trade relationship with the EU. It’s a difficult situation.

If she doesn’t receive agreement, she is likely to reopen splits within her Cabinet and to face a full-blown crisis. By far, this is the most difficult Brexit issue that she has confronted yet. The status of the border with Ireland threatens her minority government, the unity of the UK and willingness of others to enter into any future trade deals with a future, non-EU aligned UK. Everything else she faces in running the country are a sideshow as all the political energy is being used up on Brexit.

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