Theresa May’s government has careened headlong into another entirely predictable roadblock in the ongoing process of extricating Britain from the European Union. London and Brussels have been negotiating over the pesky issue of how to keep the Irish border open, and yesterday those negotiations collapsed.
The impasse may make May’s intention of achieving a “hard Brexit”—a complete withdrawal from the EU common market and customs union—impossible.
Everyone should probably have seen this coming since January, when May gave a speech saying that the U.K. would be withdrawing from the common market, rather than opting for a “soft Brexit” scenario in which it would give up some control over immigration and regulation in order to maintain access to European markets. May, with some justification, said that “soft Brexit” would effectively mean “not leaving the EU at all.”
The problem with going the harder route is that there’s more than one island involved. Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., has a land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. European integration helped quell the sectarian violence that once plagued Northern Ireland because, while the region is formally under British rule, that matters less than it used to thanks to the free movement of goods and people throughout the island.
Nobody in Ireland, north or south, wants a hard border imposed. But the problem with leaving it open is that it creates an unguarded backdoor for goods and immigrants to enter the UK via Ireland—the very concerns that drove people to vote for Brexit in the first place.
Things got even trickier in June when an electoral defeat forced May’s Conservatives to partner with the Democratic Unionist Party, a Conservative Northern Irish party that supports stronger ties with the U.K., in order for form a government. The DUP alliance came into play on Monday after Britain and the EU reached a deal under which Northern Ireland would maintain “continued regulatory alignment” with the rest of Ireland, allowing goods to continue to move throughout the island without customs checks. But the DUP quickly put out a statement saying that the party would not accept such a deal and that “Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom.” (The DUP is worried that under the deal, the rest of the UK would effectively be treating Northern Ireland as part of Ireland for trade purposes.) Some right-wing Tories are also backing the DUP’s position. The cost of a hard Brexit, they fear, would be a soft separation of the United Kingdom.
Since the DUP is propping up May’s government, the agreement with Brussels collapsed in an embarrassing show of weakness for the prime minister, who was not exactly on the strongest footing to begin with. British opposition parties are now calling for the soft Brexit scenario (under which the whole of the U.K. would stay within the common market) to be put back on the negotiating table..
Right now, the British government wants to maintain the territorial status quo in Northern Ireland, to keep the border with the Republic of Ireland open, and to fully separate from the EU. Thanks to geography and political reality, it’s probably not possible to have all three. This is something that pro-Brexit leaders should probably have thought of before they embarked on this project.
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