In the final weeks of negotiations over the resumption of talks between Britain and the European Union over the details of the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc, Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, made a number of concessions. In particular, she offered EU President Donald Tusk her assurance that there would be no transition period under any deal she negotiated, so that she could continue to apply all EU laws and regulations during the time when Britain would remain bound by the EU.
At the same time, and perhaps most ironically, she suggested that there would be no requirement that Northern Ireland remain part of the EU single market or customs union. Such a step would risk reopening the so-called Irish border, possibly shutting Britain off to the lucrative trade and investment opportunities of the continent. Perhaps as a result, a backstop designed to prevent such a scenario, which would involve Northern Ireland remaining aligned to EU rules to keep open its land border with the Republic of Ireland, was dropped from the final draft of the agreement.
But since Ireland is the United Kingdom’s other devolved state and party to the peace agreement that ended decades of conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the North, it has been a shock to see Dublin reject any plan for the Northern Ireland to stay in the EU’s single market and customs union in any future EU-UK agreement. Theresa May’s government had previously claimed that Northern Ireland would have no special status under any Brexit deal. However, the developments have stoked fears that Ireland is following a similar path to that taken by Northern Ireland, and will seek a hard Brexit agreement — even if this will likely scupper Brexit and at the very least sour its relations with the UK.
In the United States, the political divide over a soft border exists in politics, but it is always a question of how it will be achieved. While both the presidential candidates of the Democrats and Republicans in the recent election had different border plans, the consensus was that the border should remain open. This stand is also shared by President Obama, former President George W. Bush, and Secretary of State John Kerry. All believe that securing the integrity of the United States’ borders should be above party politics. As London risks becoming the victim of a con that could cost its people much, much more than staying in the EU (the bloc this year officially relinquished control of borders to the World Trade Organization), the pressure is on Mrs. May to do the right thing by her country.
Another impediment to a good deal: The EU’s stance on human rights. Since a Brexit deal must be ratified by the EU Parliament, and as the EU is currently controlled by its socialist and liberal leaders, it is likely to reject any agreement which does not include special protections for the remaining states of the EU’s Schengen visa-free zone, which would include the UK.
In the middle of this moral quagmire, an even more daunting obstacle stands in the way: The EU’s oft-lamented “Iron Lady” Merkel. She now faces not only the challenge of getting along with her European counterparts, but also with some of the leading lawmakers of her own party, who have vowed to leave the European Parliament unless she is prepared to radically change the EU’s treaties in order to avoid a hard Brexit. If Germany, with a history as rough as that of Britain’s, becomes the firewall that stops this economically disastrous Brexit from happening, then everyone will breathe a little easier. But if things get ugly, with snide lectures and demagogic campaigns galore, the EU will owe it to itself to bend over backwards to ensure the success of the Brexit negotiations, even if it means compromising on some of its most cherished values.