Brexit: a shambolic day raises the stakes

Theresa May must either bring along her opponents or face them down

European Commission president Jean Claude-Juncker confirms that the EU and United Kingdom have failed to reach an agreement on Brexit. Video: EC Audiovisual Services

 

A last-minute unionist wobble has scuppered a deal on the Border in Brussels, exposing Theresa May’s political weakness in shambolic fashion. But it is clear that agreement is within touching distance. The sooner it is signed off on the better, because notwithstanding the rumblings of discontent among Tory Brexiteers and unionists, a deal that makes a hard Border less likely is in the interests of everyone in Ireland and Britain.

For the Government, an outcome that committed London to “regulatory alignment” would go some way to ensuring the UK’s withdrawal from the EU would not result in a hard Border – a catastrophic scenario that would harm the two economies and undermine decades of reconciliation efforts. May has consistently said she wants to avoid border controls along the 500km frontier, but London’s persistent failure to explain how it proposed to marry its contradictory negotiating positions – the maintenance of an invisible Border and departure from the customs union – prompted Dublin to push for a firm political commitment on the issue. The deal that was on the table on Monday may not be legally binding, but it would give the Government what it needs at this stage.

The deal would also be good news for Britain itself in that it would clear the way for Brexit talks to move on to the future relationship. For now at least, that would reduce the chances of a disorderly no-deal withdrawal – a scenario so damaging that no serious politician should contemplate it.

For Northern Ireland, meanwhile, the deal would be inarguably positive. It would leave open the possibility of maintaining the North’s special status, thereby limiting its exposure to the worst effects of Brexit and giving it a competitive advantage over other parts of the UK. The DUP’s opposition to special status is more political stagecraft than principled conviction. The Belfast Agreement enshrines Northern Ireland’s special status. The region already opts out of many British laws the DUP doesn’t like, and, as unionist support for a 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate in the North shows, it has long ago conceded the principle of regulatory alignment with the Republic. The same goes for its supposed opposition to goods controls in the Irish Sea – a position that already obtains for animal and plant products.

Agreed language on the Border would be just one step in a long and difficult process that still has more than a year to run. The next phase of talks, which will test the EU27’s ability to maintain its united front, promises to be far more fraught than the first. And only when it concludes will we begin to see what phrases such as “regulatory alignment” are to mean in practice.

But starting off with agreed principles on the Border is essential. That will require May to show real leadership. She must either bring along her opponents or face them down.

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