At dinner the other week, a friend of mine wondered whether British Prime Minister Theresa May would have been treated with quite so much patience, forbearance and courtesy by her EU colleagues had she not been a woman. It’s a fair question.
Her reportedly dismal performance at the EU summit on Thursday must have been enough to make everyone tear their hair out. With no plan whatsoever put forward in the event that her deal is once again voted down in Parliament, which seems likely now she has made enemies of almost all MPs, the European Council was forced to take matters into its own hands.
The approach offered is an elegant one. If the deal is approved, then an extension until May allows the necessary legislation to be passed. If the deal is voted down, the UK will have two weeks to decide what to propose next. The new Brexit date in those circumstances is set at April 12.
Or is it? Can the EU really contemplate a no-deal exit? I would argue that it is difficult, if not impossible, for the EU to do so.
The deal is stuck in the UK Parliament for one reason and one reason only – the Irish backstop arrangements. These are deemed essential by the EU because they will not countenance a hard border in Ireland. They have stood steadfastly by the Irish government in their implacable resistance to removing the backstop or making it unambiguously time limited. If it were not for the backstop, then it is highly likely that the Withdrawal Agreement could have sailed through parliament.
But it is obvious to say, though nobody seems to have said it loud and clear, that a no-deal Brexit would require a hard border in Ireland. The UK has already stated that it would not enact such a border. It would therefore be left to the Irish to do so and to carry the political fallout from such border infrastructure.
Whether such a unilateral arrangement can last is debatable. But it does not have to last long for it to have a significant short-term political effect.
Much of what has happened around the Brexit debate makes no sense
If the UK continues to reject the Withdrawal Agreement because of the backstop, the EU will have a choice: stick by the position that the Withdrawal Agreement is sacrosanct and opt for a no-deal Brexit; or modify the backstop. Both these choices involve throwing Ireland to the wolves – something that the EU has, so far, refused to contemplate.
In those circumstances, would the EU prefer a deal that, by making the backstop clearly time limited, minimizes the economic cost of Brexit for all parties and, at least, avoids an Irish border in the short term while creating a strong incentive for both parties to reach a workable future relationship? Or would it prefer a no-deal exit which ensures that the very thing that has destroyed the possibility of a deal, the Irish border question, actually comes to pass immediately?
It is not clear to me how and why the EU could possibly prefer the latter option. It would be a clear case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. And which option would the Irish government prefer? Would it really hold out for an unmodifiable backstop if the alternative were a hard border today and having to carry the political fallout? None of it would make logical sense.
But then again, much of what has happened around the Brexit debate makes no logical sense at all. And so it will continue while Mrs May remains Prime Minister. All the runes suggest that may not be for long.
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