Irish border blocks Brexit progress

The “already difficult” Brexit talks were thrown “into chaos” this week, says Rachel Roberts in The Independent. The Democratic Unionist Party torpedoed the proposed agreement on Brexit withdrawal, saying it would “not accept” a deal on the Irish border which treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.

Theresa May now only has a few days before the summit of EU leaders on 14 December to find a solution in order to progress to the next stage of negotiations: our future trading relationship and the preceding transitional arrangements. However, since the DUP is “effectively propping up” May’s minority government, it has “significant” leverage.

The Irish border question has to be settled. When the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, the Republic of Ireland will remain a member while Northern Ireland will be outside of it. However, the EU is committed to protecting the Good Friday agreement, which means it cannot support the return of a hard border, notes Sarah Carey in The Times. To avoid this, the proposal was for Northern Ireland to maintain “regulatory alignment” with the EU, effectively moving the customs border between the UK and the Republic into the Irish Sea and resulting in Northern Ireland being treated more as part of a united Ireland than the UK.

Now, not only is the DUP unhappy, but leaders of the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales and the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, are arguing that if one part of the UK can effectively stay in the single market and customs union, that they should be allowed to do so, too.

How is it possible that this issue wasn’t “squared” with the DUP before May’s meeting with EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker in Brussels? asks Philip Johnston in The Daily Telegraph. May and her officials must surely have realised that the DUP would not countenance an arrangement that treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK. If not, they have “a very poor grasp of history”. In any case, thanks to this cock-up, what could have been a “great national story”, Brexit, is turning into an “indignity”.

It may be possible to “cobble something together” that will persuade the DUP to come back onboard, but in the long run this could well mean promising that the “UK as a whole will stay in the single market and customs union in all but name”. But May cannot say as much because she has ruled it out and the EU won’t let us discuss it.

With a “bit of luck, some creative ambiguity and some more bribes and false promises for the DUP”, May might get them back onboard, but her “litany of calamities” suggests that she won’t – and that could mean the end of her premiership, says Sean O’Grady in The Independent.

If the DUP get angry enough to scrap their agreement with the Tory-minority government, May would have to rely on the opposition parties to “rescue her” in the Commons, but with his current poll lead over the Tories, Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to settle for that. The DUP would then let in the “Sinn Fein-loving Corbyn (as they might see it)”, but it’s still a possibility.

The stakes are high for the DUP and May’s government, says the FT. It is “in everyone’s interests” to sort this out and move on. The draft agreement leaves a “great deal unanswered”, but it represents May’s “best effort to reconcile the conflicting demands of the various groups – all of whom are poised to accuse her of betrayal”. Some ambiguity is needed “to keep the show on the road”. Enough time has been spent on the preliminaries.

It’s time to address the “end state” of Britain’s relations with the EU. As this episode shows, divisions over our future relationship with the EU run deep. “No one should be under any illusion about how tough the coming months will be.”

My hopes certainly aren’t high, says Matthew Norman in The Independent.May is basically an England penalty-taker “who couldn’t hope to find the net if the opposition keeper nipped behind the posts for a fag”.