The Irish Times view on Brexit talks: When backstop means backstop
As Brussels points out, a backstop with a backing-out provision is an oxymoron
The success of the Brexit talks hinges on Theresa May’s ability to face down the Brexiteers in her own camp. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
As the deadline for a Brexit agreement looms ever closer, the British government is bringing its tense negotiations with itself down to the wire. Meanwhile, Brussels and Dublin wait for London to reconcile itself with a deal whose shape has been known to everyone for almost a year.
The Border in Ireland is now the defining dilemma of the entire process. Fail to resolve it and the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal – a catastrophic scenario that would hurt living standards and poison a set of already fraught European relationships.
On the Border, the Brussels-Dublin line has been unwavering: there must be no hard frontier on the island. London agreed to that principle, and signed up to a legal text – the backstop – to set it in stone. The backstop acts as an insurance policy, only to be triggered in the event that no better solution is found. But even though it is a last resort, a hardline faction in Theresa May’s government is hostile to it, seeing it as a means of keeping the UK, or Northern Ireland, in a customs union subject to European rules. They want the backstop to have an expiry date or a release clause. But as Brussels points out, a backstop with a backing-out provision is an oxymoron.
The timetable is extremely tight; an agreement must be reached by next week if European leaders are to sign off on a withdrawal deal by the end of the month. That means London is finally forced to confront an issue it has skirted and fudged until now. The problem is that Brussels is not dealing with a perfectly rational actor: the British government is a chaotic, dysfunctional negotiator, whose desire to secure the deal that serves its people best is constantly weighed against competing imperatives: keeping the cabinet together, placating the Democratic Unionists, and maintaining the illusion that a national act of self-sabotage is some kind of triumph.
May has aims that are impossible to reconcile: no hard border in Ireland (her pledge), no border in the Irish Sea (a DUP red line) and no membership of the customs union (a demand of the Brexiteers). Something has to give. The current compromise is for a UK-wide, bare-bones customs union with the EU, accompanied by some customs and regulatory measures specific to Northern Ireland. It’s still not clear whether this will be acceptable to the DUP or the Brexiteers.
Brussels and London should give May the freedom to sell the deal whatever way she likes, if it enables the process to stay on schedule. It was in that spirit that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Monday he was willing to explore a backstop review mechanism, albeit one that could not be activated unilaterally by the UK. Such gestures help. Ultimately, however, the success of the talks hinges on May’s ability to face down the Brexiteers. She’s running out of time.