The prospects of making significant progress in the Brexit talks ahead of the June summit of EU leaders look poor enough, even if some time remains to do so. The huge divisions in the Conservative Party continue to stymie British prime minister, Theresa May, from articulating a clear strategy. In its latest debate,the British cabinet has been arguing over which of two approaches to future customs arrangements to favour, with little regard to the fact that both have already been met with the most serious reservations by Brussels.
The UK has so far found it difficult to face up to the hard choices which Brexit brings, in this case deciding whether to maintain free trade with the EU or be able to strike its own trade deals with other countries in the years ahead. Against this backdrop, the problem for EU negotiators is that they do not have a counterparty with a clear negotiating strategy with which to try to strike a deal.
The Irish Border is a central element in the negotiations and was identified as one on which assurances would be needed in the withdrawal agreement, in case other solutions did not emerge later in the talks. The worrying factor this week is that the UK’s proposals for other solutions are, so far at least, the same as they were last summer.
Indeed, such is the gap between the two sides that one of these proposals, the so-called customs partnership, is seen as restricting the UK’s room for manoeuvre too much by the Brexit lobby, while the EU side has indicated that it offers too much latitude and would not protect the EU’s internal market. So far the only other proposal coming from London is to use technology and new procedures to avoid the imposition of a Border. This would not secure the EU’s internal market and would be a charter for smuggling and crime.
The moment of truth for Theresa May could be approaching. Her government's failure to produce a coherent strategy on the Border cuts to the heart of its Brexit divisions. Meanwhile, she has already indicated that she sees serious problems with the so-called backstop, the EU plan for customs and regulatory alignment on the island of Ireland, if no other solution emerges to avoid the need for a hard Border. For progress to be made, the Conservative government needs to signal new flexibility – and it remains to be seen if this is politically possible.
There is a lot at stake. If the withdrawal agreement cannot be concluded, then the deal on a transition period after the UK leaves the EU also falls. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, seemed to be trying to take some of the heat out of the situation on his visit to Ireland this week, highlighting that the EU remains open to proposals from London. But he needs the UK to respond by setting out a coherent position. And time is running short.