Brexit: bordering on the impossible

Theresa May © Getty images
May: still desperately looking for solutions wherever she goes

It’s hard to see how Theresa May can cut the Gordian knot of the Irish border. Emily Hohler reports.

Wednesday’s Brexit summit dinner in Brussels was supposed to be the “moment of truth” when states gave the green light for Brexit, say Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin in the Guardian. Instead, with the issue of the Irish backstop derailing negotiations (after the Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, refused to sign off an agreement on Sunday), plans to outline the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU have been “scrapped”.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, told Theresa May to come up with a “creative solution” when she addresses the 27 EU leaders before the dinner, even though she “appears to remain in an impossible political position” at home.

An offer May can’t refuse – or accept

It doesn’t look as if the new offer by Michel Barnier will help either, says Harvey Gavin in the Daily Express. The chief EU negotiator has said he is open to extending the transition period for a year if May accepts a two-tier backstop to avoid a hard border in Ireland. The first part of the backstop would apply to Northern Ireland only, keeping it within the EU customs union and much of the single market.

But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up May’s government, says it will withdraw its support if this happens. The second element would include provisions for a UK-wide customs union. Accepting that would mean extending the period during which Britain would be “bound by EU laws” while having no representation until December 2021.

Such a move would be “politically toxic” for many Brexiteer Tory MPs, says Mehreen Khan in the Financial Times. But May’s team is “considering the move”, because it would be a “simple way to buy more time to agree a UK/EU trade deal, which is intended to remove the need for the Irish border backstop guarantee”.

The problem is that a “deal sold in this country as a contingent backstop would be treated by Eurocrats as a definitive settlement”, says pro-Brexit MEP Daniel Hannan in the Daily Telegraph. The “temporary” arrangement would be “so favourable” to the EU, and “so injurious to Britain”, that Brussels would lose interest in further talks. Particularly since we will have already paid our £39bn financial settlement on leaving, says Boris Johnson, the pro-Brexit former foreign secretary, in the same paper.

When the government agreed to the backstop last December, it was dismissed as “just a form of words”. It has been “turned into a means of frustrating Brexit”. The choice now being offered by Brussels is a choice between “two exquisitely embarrassing varieties of humiliation”: an option of either “treating Northern Ireland as an economic colony of the EU, or treating the whole of the UK as such a colony”.

Keep on kicking the can

These kinds of reactions show why May has no room for manoeuvre domestically, says Rachel Sylvester in The Times. Her strategy, therefore “seems to be to leave everything until the very last minute… and hope she can cobble together a deal before bouncing parliament into supporting it for fear of something worse”. It is hard to see how this will work. Brexiteers are making all the noise for now, but Remainers won’t accept a deal they believe to be worse than the status quo.

May is trapped, agrees Matthew Norman in The Independent. For all her “wittering” at the dispatch box about backstops, she “can get nothing worth having through parliament or the EU”. This is a prime minister caught in a “religious war between the Tory right wing and the DUP, who would be burnt alive before they compromised, and an EU which has always been immaculately clear that it won’t sacrifice any core principles for expediency”.