Prime Minister Theresa May ramped up the Brexit tension this week with a warning on the shape of future relationships with the European Union.
Following her humiliation at the EU summit, May emphasised that she would still prefer no deal to a bad deal. The so-called Canada style trade agreement on offer from the European Commission is one of those she regards as a ‘bad deal’ – specifically because the proposed arrangement would require controls between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, to enable the border between NI and the Republic to stay open without controls.
May’s latest comments build on a remark she made last week after the EU Summit in Salzburg. “In the event of a no deal we will do everything we can to avoid a hard border,” she said. That, to me, reads as hinting that if there is a controlled border here, she is suggesting the blame will lie elsewhere. That is far from reassuring.
Many more commentators are now putting the odds of a no deal outcome at around 50-50. Following Salzburg, negotiations have been pushed back yet again, with a new deadline of November – but only if there is progress in October. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said the government’s Chequers plan “will not work” and would potentially undermine the EU’s single market.
French finance minister Bruno Le Maire spelled out the situation even more clearly this week. “If we give the idea that we can exit the European Union and keep all of the benefits of the single market then it is the end of Europe [the EU],” he said. “Sorry to put it bluntly, but what is more important for us than the future of the UK is the future of Europe [the EU], and so we will take no decision that could weaken the future of the EU.”
But the pressure from the EU creates substantial domestic difficulties for Theresa May, whose future as prime minister looks very short term. Boris Johnson resigned as foreign secretary after the Cabinet agreed Theresa May’s Chequers proposals and he has since described them as “a suicide belt around the British constitution”, with the detonator handed to the EU. A significant number of Conservative MPs – from both sides of the party – have criticised the Chequers plan, with many hinting they will vote against it in the House of Commons.
Of itself, this would not trigger a General Election, because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011. But it would create a constitutional crisis.
In a statement following Salzburg, Theresa May stressed that there are two roadblocks to progress. The first is that there is no agreement on the future trading relationship between the EU and the UK. The EU says this has to be either membership of the European Economic Area (similar, though different, from that in place with Norway), which would mean the UK continuing to pay into the EU, accepting EU trade regulations, staying in the single market and probably also, unlike Norway, the customs union as well.
The alternative is a trade deal like that with Canada, with Great Britain leaving the single market. However, the EU wants Northern Ireland to stay in the single market and customs union in order that the Irish border remains uncontrolled. Instead controls would operate between NI and GB. Both the EU’s proposed options are unacceptable to the UK government.
The second stumbling block is the Irish backstop that was already agreed in principle. Again this relates to the refusal by the UK government to accept controls on goods between NI and GB. The government says it will put forward an alternative proposal to deal with this issue.
Two heads of government at EU member states – Malta and the Czech Republic – said at Salzburg that they would like a second Brexit referendum. That campaign is growing in strength within the UK and has been led by one of Tony Blair’s former Cabinet ministers, Andrew Adonis, who has visited Derry several times in recent weeks. He is interviewed for the Holywell Trust’s latest Brexit podcast.
The latest podcast also includes a round table discussion on the impact of Brexit on community relations within Northern Ireland and includes contributions from Maureen Hetherington, a board member of Community Dialogue; civic unionist Terry Wright, and independent councillor for Derry’s Foyleside ward, Darren O’Reilly.
The podcast is available at https://soundcloud.com/holywelltrust/holywell-podcast-brexit-focus-episode-10