Theresa May must choose between her red lines and peace in Northern Ireland

By Sammy Russell

The EU released its draft exit treaty earlier this week, which formally spelled out the terms of Brexit and what it may mean in practice. It shows just how tricky preserving peace in Northern Ireland will be if the UK wants to stick to the red lines it has given itself.

Theresa May has been pushed into swearing by various ‘red lines’ by the pressures of internal Conservative party politics. These are things the UK will simply not accept. The UK must leave the customs union and be free to strike trade deals elsewhere. European courts must have no power on British soil. All the while, she says she remains committed to ensuring there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. But crucially, Northern Ireland must not diverge an inch from the regulations of the mainland, as this will not be tolerated by the Democrat Unionists, upon whom her grip on power depends.

But these red lines directly conflict with one another. If the UK was to leave the customs union, say, taking Northern Ireland with it, a hard border would be an inevitability. From the perspective of Brussels, it would be needed to prevent Northern Ireland being used as a backdoor into the customs area, and the EU may hold the high cards in these negotiations.

The draft released this week proposed that if no other workable solutions are found to the Irish border question, Northern Ireland would need to stay in the Customs Union, preventing the need for a hard border or custom checks. May’s Conservatives reacted with shock. In reality, it couldn’t have been more predictable given their red lines. The onus is on the UK to propose a solution to the Irish border issue, but it is unable to as a result of the arbitrary constraints it has wrapped around itself. It has offered no realistic proposal.

The Tory cabinet thrashed out an opening negotiating position at Chequers last week. Yes, that’s right, a year on since the triggering of Article 50, the UK government has finally decided what it wants from Brexit – what they call, “Canada plus plus plus”. Basically, this is a UK-EU free trade deal, but with “managed divergence”, in which certain UK sectors would be free to diverge from EU regulations and some would remain aligned. But this smells funnily like the ‘cherry picking’ that was rubbished by Brussels over a year ago. It will gain no traction in negotiations, in fact it may have achieved the impressive feat of being completely rejected before the next phase of negotiations even begins.

Accepting this proposition would mean the EU compromising its core principles, that if you want to take advantage of its features, you must abide by all the rules. Entertaining this possibility could set a precedent, a precedent hinting to other member states that they, too, could absolve themselves of some of their obligations while continuing to reap the benefits.

The UK’s proposal does not solve the Irish border question, and doesn’t grasp the realities of the situation. Unsurprisingly the EU has dismissed it as “illusion”. In her speech today, Theresa May finally admitted that regulatory divergence would hinder market access, but she also needs to come clean about that would mean for the border in Ireland.

However perhaps taking such a fanciful position is a canny negotiating ploy, a position from which the UK government expects to compromise away? Definitely not. This proposal was the culmination of fierce cabinet infighting, and is a delicate position designed to placate the cabinet’s different factions. Any watering down of the UK proposal – yes, you guessed it – would require them to breach the red lines set by Mrs May.

Or perhaps the UK is bluffing? After all, they argue that neither side wats a hard border, so would the EU seriously impose one if the UK were to leave the customs union? If this really is the strategy, it is dangerous, and further evidence of that May’s government is not appreciating the seriousness of the issue. Using the Good Friday Agreement as a political pawn is reckless and neglectful, and history may judge them harshly if they do.

The government’s self-imposed red lines could hold them hostage. If they are serious about preserving peace, they might need to think about breaking their red lines. Honouring all of them could necessitate customs checks in Northern Ireland and jeopardise the delicate peace of the region. As the negotiations continue, a choice may need to be made by May’s government. Which do they value more: their Brexit red lines or peace in Northern Ireland?

If they want to avoid this conundrum, they must come up with the answers. So far, they appear utterly incapable.

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