Theresa May’s approach to Brexit is starting to remind me of the opening scene of Waiting for Godot.
PM: “Well, shall we decide?”
David Davis: “Yes let’s decide”
They do not decide.
Whether or not the Prime Minister is having an existential crisis, the theatrics of the EU Withdrawal Bill going through Parliament cannot distract from the embarrassing fact that, yet again, she was turning up to a European Council summit with nothing to offer.
As far as the rest of the EU is concerned, the question around the Northern Ireland border was the key Brexit issue that was supposed to settled at the June summit.
Theresa May has committed to there being no physical infrastructure on the Irish border. Indeed, this was passed into law via the EU Withdrawal bill three days ago. But as I wrote back in January 2017, it is impossible to leave the customs union and the single market without creating border checks – and with respect to the Irish Republic, they have to be either on the Northern Ireland border or in the Irish sea. But the return of checks on the Irish border would create local economic havoc and seriously jeopardise the peace process. And the second option has been categorically ruled out by the DUP-dependent May.
The government has had two years to figure out how to square a circle in Northern Ireland, but has come up short every time. The latest debacle involved the UK government offering a backstop deal that wasn’t really a backstop, on top of an ‘implementation’ period with nothing to implement.
Peace is one of the fundamental driving forces of the European project. The EU are asking for a backstop to ensure that, whatever happens, the peace process in Northern Ireland is not undermined.
So why not give up on the foolish red lines of leaving the customs union and de-aligning from the single market? After all, they are economically damaging for the UK as a whole, as the government’s leaked impact assessments showed. But here Theresa May’s unwillingness to face down the right wing of her party means she is stuck in an impasse.
So, off to the European Council she went, and to distract attention from this, blurted about security and her new-found determination to stay in EU security cooperation – or at least to keep its benefits without the obligations to respect fundamental rights and allow the ECJ to ensure that the rule of law is respected, a position she knows full well will not be countenanced by our European neighbours. It was all bluster.
Yet again, Theresa May has been playing to her domestic audience instead of working with her European counterparts.
Calling a special cabinet meeting at Chequers to try yet again to agree on on the government’s opening position for these negotiations, but convening it only AFTER the European Council meeting, was jaw dropping for our European partners. They are left frustrated, exasperated and increasingly concerned about the impending cliff edge.
Photo courtesy of Tauno Tõhk (EU2017EE)