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President of the European Council Donald Tusk has just thrown a massive spanner in the works for Theresa May – a spanner so immense that it may well result in the fall of Britain’s Prime Minister.
Tusk has today declared that until the Conservatives propose a viable solution to the Irish border, then it will be freezing all discussions over Brexit.
We know today that the UK government rejects a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, the EU single market, and the customs union
While we must respect this position, we also expect the UK to propose a specific and realistic solution to avoid a hard border.
As long as the UK doesn’t present such a solution, it is very difficult to imagine substantive progress in Brexit negotiations.
If in London someone assume that the negotiations will deal with other issues first before than the Irish issue, my response would be: Ireland first.
Here is the problem for May: if the Tories are adamant that Britain is leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market, a hard border between Northern Ireland and The Republic – or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – is absolutely unavoidable. There is absolutely no precedent for any other situation being implemented.
The fact is that there need to be checks – for goods and people – somewhere between the EU (the Republic of Ireland) and the soon-to-be non-EU (UK and Northern Ireland).
If in London someone assumes that the #Brexit negotiations will deal with other issues first, before moving to the Irish issue, my response would be: Ireland first.
— Charles Michel (@eucopresident) March 8, 2018
There are a number of solutions to the problem:
1.) Keeping the UK in the Customs Union (or in regulatory alignment) would mean regulations between the EU and the UK would remain the same so no checks or extra tariffs would need to be implemented.
2.) If we were to leave the Customs Union, we would need a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic where checks and tariffs could be implemented on goods going from the EU to the UK or vice versa, or:
3.) Having a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, but keeping Northern Ireland either inside the Customs Union, or in regulatory alignment with the EU so checks were unnecessary between the two Irish states, but could be made at a border between NI and the rest of the UK.
However, the unfortunate thing for the Tories is that they have already flat out rejected each one of these arrangements already. May has rightly said no to any new borders, either in Ireland (which would jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement), or in the Irish Sea between NI and the rest of the UK (which would jeopardise the unity of the United Kingdom). However, she has also rejected any prospect of remaining in the Customs Union or any meaningful regulatory alignment with the EU after leaving.
Essentially, there are no prospects for a viable solution to the Irish border conundrum unless Theresa May is willing to move on the Tories’ hard Brexit position, or on the implementation of physical infrastructure to check goods between the Republic and the UK. But, given her stubborn record throughout these negotiations, and the fact she is essentially in hock to a hard-line group of Brexiteers (ERG) in her own party due in part to her intolerably precarious personal position after managing to lose the Tories’ majority, it’s almost certain she won’t budge an inch. And the problem is – the EU have nowhere else to go as well.
If the Tories refuse to budge, this stand-off will almost certainly result in the UK crashing out of the EU with absolutely no deal, with all imported goods entering the UK on WTO tariffs – meaning the cost of living for ordinary people will almost certainly go through the roof until things are sorted out – which could take many years, if not decades, for trade deals to be passed.
But the absolutely ridiculous thing about this whole situation is that if the Tories’ incompetence does result in us crashing out of the EU with no deal, there will need to be a border in Ireland regardless!
Whatever way this goes, Theresa May is going to have to anger someone – it’s just whether she decides that’s going to be the voting public with a hugely increased cost of living for several years at least, or the hard-Brexiteers in her party by refusing a hard cliff-edge Brexit. Either way, this stand-off between the EU and the UK almost certainly signals the beginning of a very slippery slope for Theresa May.
We truly are in unprecedented times – and things really are only going to get more interesting from hereon in.
Unfortunately, however, the Tories’ reckless actions to pursue a hard Brexit at any cost will almost certainly result in the very poorest in our society suffering the most. We need a competent government – one who is actually willing to make compromises in the interests of ordinary people. And god knows this Tory shambles won’t ever be willing to put the interests of ordinary people before that of their own party or the pockets of the rich.
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