For Theresa May and her minority government, engaged in a delicate transitional phase of the negotiations on Britain’s exit from the E.U., 17 months after the era-defining referendum, Monday was a “make or break” moment. She needed to reach an agreement that would unblock phase two of the negotiations, in which London and Brussels have been stuck for months, and which is supposed to start in mid-December.
In Brussels, where the British Prime Minister had breakfast with Jean-Claude Juncker, there was good animus toward a deal. But in the end, it wasn’t enough — although today an agreement is closer than before, there are still significant reservations.
In the morning, chief negotiator Michael Barnier had said he was very optimistic, and Donald Tusk echoed the same sentiment. The front page of the Times said that the agreement was 90 percent there. Then came the anticlimax: a working lunch between May and Jean-Claude Juncker that was not as conclusive as everyone had hoped. At the end of the day’s work, the British Prime Minister admitted that “on a couple of issues, some differences do remain,” although she said she was “confident” that a breakthrough would happen this week. The obstacle this time comes from the DUP, the Unionist party from Northern Ireland.
The negotiations, enormous in scope, are divided into two phases: Brexit proper, regarding the manner and terms of the separation, and the post-Brexit phase, meaning the negotiations over the commercial relationships between a Britain that has already “exited” and the E.U. Brussels has been adamant: There will be no trade agreement before deciding the terms of the divorce. This caused the deadlock: May insisted on carrying out the two phases of the negotiations at the same time, a necessity imposed on her by the fragility of her governing coalition.
But Phase 1, the divorce talks, has been held up so far by four major obstacles: the status of the three million European citizens in post-Brexit Britain, the border with Northern Ireland, the amount of the divorce bill (the so-called Brexit bill) and the role of the European Court of Justice.
So far, May has had to give ground on just about everything to avoid that “hard” Brexit (out of the single market and out of the customs union) that (almost) all British businesses fear like the plague. She will pay the large divorce bill, no less than €50 billion, and she will recognize the legal role of the Strasbourg Court regarding European British residents, which itself is causing the threatening wrath of the hardline Eurosceptics in her party, especially Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who could turn against her at any moment.
But the biggest problem is that of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The introduction of a physical border between the two countries — a necessary corollary of Brexit — is not wanted by anyone, no less because it would throw the provisions of the Friday Agreement and the peace accords out the window. As a result, May gave way on the inclusion of Belfast within the “regulatory alignment” to which other E.U. countries adhere, essentially maintaining a non-physical border that is unlikely to reignite the conflict. This introduces the prospect that the U.K. as whole would end up adopting the same solution as Northern Ireland, essentially making Brexit a dead letter. The pound rose Monday because of this.
But all this has caused an outcry from Arlene Foster’s DUP, which is supporting May’s minority government and to which May is essentially a hostage. For them, the relationship between Britain and the E.U. must be identical to that between the E.U. and Northern Ireland. They fear that, if Northern Ireland were to be treated like Ireland in relation to Europe, even if only from the point of view of commerce, then Dublin could take the opportunity to raise its own unionist, “pan-Irish” claims, aiming at restoring the island’s territorial integrity and national unity.
As if that was not enough, May is also under fire in London and Edinburgh. Both the capital and Scotland voted to remain in the E.U., and now, seeing the concessions made to Northern Ireland, naturally want the same treatment, as confirmed by both Sadiq Khan and Nicola Sturgeon. Both are asking for a similar “bespoke” deal, which in turn is horrifying the hardline Eurosceptics, who are pressing for a unilateral “hard” Brexit for the country as a whole.
In all, the risk to May is not coming only from Brussels, but also from Westminster: Just one reckless move by the Brexiteers or the Unionists could bring the government crashing down.