To an outsider following the Brexit debates in the House of Commons, the unrelenting attacks by Tory backbenchers on Prime Minister May and the European Union are, at their worst, a display of national self-flagellation. They signal deep political differences within both Tory and Labour ranks – differences that could still derail the negotiations.

The bitterness brings back memories of the two attempts at presidential impeachment in Washington since the early 1970s. The same skewering awaits President Donald Trump now that the Democrats in the House of Representatives can start to call in their witnesses. To be fair, however, the transatlantic similarity is incomplete. There are no charges of impropriety in the Brexit mess.

The debate has revolved around a list of grievances, like the money sent to Brussels, unwanted immigrants and imposed regulations. Lately, however, attention turned to the border that carves Ulster out of Ireland. 

The morning after the defeat of the pact agreed to by Theresa May and the EU, this newspaper carried a lengthy article on the reaction of European governments. Down the list, the Irish reaction took all of three lines. But as a matter of fact, it had to be an Irish issue that could sink the Brexit process. The Good Friday agreement of 1998, which pacified Ulster and brought sectarian violence to an end, is incompatible with any Brexit pact that does not keep at least Ulster and at most the UK inside the EU’s customs union. The twists and turns that climaxed in May’s defeat went as follows. 

Now, both sides of the Irish border are in the same customs union. With the same rules governing external commerce, a hard border between the two is unnecessary, and this situation is all in line with the Good Friday pact. With Ireland inside the EU and Ulster on the way out, a hard border and inspections look inevitable for the fencing of the EU’s single market, but they also breach the Good Friday agreement. 

To retain the soft border, post-Brexit Ulster would not leave the EU’s customs union. The economic frontier between the EU and the UK would run down the Irish Sea, with all of Ireland to the west and Great Britain to the east. This would break the unity of the UK and is unacceptable to the British.

To keep the soft border but also keep the UK intact, the Brexit agreement would have to place the entire UK permanently in a customs union with the EU. Two problems arise. First, the customs union would impede the UK from reaching trade agreements with the rest of the world, one of the freedoms at the heart of the Brexit movement. Second, the EU is not likely to give the UK a say in its deliberations on the customs union. 

Even though the EU is very reluctant to negotiate any further, a deferred Brexit seems inevitable

A resourceful May and the EU split the difference. Her Brexit plan now keeps all of the UK inside the customs union, but only temporarily, pending an alternative resolution of the border conundrum. There was talk of a new technology that would deliver the discipline of a hard border but the ease and appearance of a soft border. So far this miracle border is nowhere in sight. 

While the Labour opposition appears to embrace the customs union, Tory backbench anger switched from the soft border to just how temporary the UK’s participation in the customs union would be. The temporary will never end if the EU were to demand difficult concessions. The British side would be unable to terminate the temporary arrangement unilaterally. There was a provision for recourse to arbitration if one side felt the other was acting in bad faith, but this did not placate the Brexiteers. They joined opposition MPs to defeat May’s proposed pact. 

A resolution looks impossible within the bounds of the current deadline. Even though the EU is very reluctant to negotiate any further, a deferred Brexit seems inevitable. Yet, no delay is likely to soften calls by the EU for politically explosive concessions on fishing in British waters or on Gibraltar or Ulster, or worse.

Meanwhile conspiracy buffs argue that the border issue is just a ruse. They claim that the EU is exploiting the Irish situation to vex and corner the British. Yet the EU’s intransigence on the Irish border is no surprise. The EU follows its rule book. A set of principles first pronounced by Commissioner Willy deClercq in 1987 provides the guidelines for EU negotiations with non-member states. Two principles stand out. 

First, the EU’s internal integration comes first and is always prioritised over relations with non-member states. So, in the Brexit negotiations, the EU places the interests of the Irish Republic over the EU’s relations with the UK. The Irish interest requires the UK to honour the terms of the Good Friday pact. Another principle safeguards the EU’s decision-making autonomy.  Letting the UK unilaterally walk out of the temporary arrangement is not on. Moreover, should the Brexit negotiations end up with the UK staying in the customs union, whether for a while or forever, the British won’t have a say in any EU deliberations on the customs union. But there may be some wiggle room here.

The Irish cause

Confronting its big neighbour to the east, the Irish cause has long needed outside support. Reflecting the waves of Irish immigrants during the Great Famine and after, some 40 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. The republican community in Ulster received financial as well as political support, as politicians took up the Irish republican cause. Donations flowed also to republican terrorists in Ulster.

During the troubles, the American poster boy for republican militants in Ulster was Peter King, grandson of Irish immigrants and Republican congressman from South Shore Long Island, outside New York City. There were other politicians with similar views, but Peter was Sinn Fein’s man in Washington. King described the IRA as “the legitimate voice of occupied Ireland” while an Irish government official denounced King’s support of a terrorist organisation. 

It all came crashing down on September 11, 2001, when foreign terrorists took their struggle to the American homeland. Regardless of kinship or shared DNA, support for any kind of terrorism became unthinkable. Irish American generosity dried up. 

Serving as a go-between, King facilitated the Good Friday pact. In the most amazing rebranding since the Damascene conversion, King became the chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. It is strange that an enabler of violence in Ulster would turn into a crusader against Islamic terror. King replies: “The fact is, the IRA never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States.”

Help from third or fourth cousins in the US, and the use of the good offices, so to speak, of a renegade politician, proved transient and they did not bring the unification of Ireland any closer. In contrast, the Good Friday pact is an international treaty that pacified Ulster. The leverage gained by Ireland as a member of the EU is durable and above board. It is also being put to good use. 

As post-colonial Britain makes a go-it-alone turn, Brexit pulls Ulster out of the EU, widening the political and commercial separation between the two parts of Ireland, and shackling republican aspirations in Ulster. A hard border would do further damage to the republican cause. On the other hand, the EU’s stand on the soft border works in the opposite direction, by pressing for compliance with the Good Friday pact.

When it is negotiating with outsiders or soon-to-be outsiders, the EU looks first after its own, and that’s what the EU is doing in the border stand-off. How is it possible that nobody – not even in Belfast – saw this coming?

Bernard Gauci retired from a teaching position at Hollins University, Virginia.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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