The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, seems to turn impatient when it comes to Brexit discussions within her own country. In late October, she hastily declared that 95% of the issues to be covered in a withdrawal agreement were already solved. Now, she seems even more adamant to push her colleagues into an agreement, by raising the possibility that a deal could be reached before the end of November.
Her Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Jeremy Hunt, outlined the “substantive outstanding issues” that make up the remaining 5% concerns separating the United Kingdom from a Brexit deal. Central to these concerns is the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ and behind it the whole debate over how frictionless UK-EU trade will be after Brexit.
The Northern Irish issue is particularly difficult for Prime Minister as it not only involves difficult discussions with her European partners but even more troublesome ones within her coalition, that includes the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland. The latter is suspicious that the recent progress made in talks with the EU, for instance the status of Gibraltar and the Royal Air Force bases in Cyprus, could have been reached in exchange of accepting the EU proposal that Northern Ireland remains in its customs union and single market, should there be no UK-EU free-trade deal by the end of December 2020, that is the end of the post-Brexit transition period. Such a contingency plan would require a hard border in the Irish Sea, thus challenging the UK’s sovereignty.
A recent letter written by May to the DUP leader has raised such fears. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s assertion that she could not accept any circumstance in which the backstop “could come into force”, has been interpreted by DUP leader, Arlene Foster, as an admittance that the backstop will appear in the Brexit Deal, something her party is strongly opposed to. If the DUP’s fears come to be true, they might seriously consider not backing their political ally May when her Brexit Deal passes in Parliament. This could possibly endanger the coalition and trigger early elections that could see totally different outcomes for Brexit, including a second referendum if Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn is elected.
Alternatively, the possibility that May will agree on maintaining the whole of the UK in the customs union for a while has also been floated. This alternative would allow her to avoid the critical issue of Northern Ireland but it remains to be seen whether the EU would accept to postpone the transition period to 2021, without any agreement on a backstop.
BBC, 22 October 2018, “Theresa May Says 95% of Brexit Deal is Done.”
BBC, 9 November 2018, “DUP Accuses May of Breaking Promises on Irish Border.”
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