Brexit Britain from Abroad: Amid Acrimony, May Faces Decision Time
Time for Fudge is Over
The British prime minister Theresa May did what she had to do in the House of Commons on Wednesday at her weekly questions. “No UK prime minster could ever agree to it,” she told the braying Brexiteers of the green benches.
Thankfully nobody was impolite enough to point out that she had already agreed to most of it two months ago.
In December, a breakdown in the negotiations between the UK and the EU was avoided when the two sides made a political agreement which EU leaders judged to mark “sufficient progress” in the first phase of the talks. As ever in this process, it was the UK that conceded.
That enabled the talks to move to the second or “future relationship” phase, which crucially includes the trade relationship between the UK and the EU, as the UK had been impatiently seeking.
The Government heaved a sigh of relief at the December deal – not just because it avoided a breakdown, with the prospect for a hard border that such an outcome would likely herald – but because May acceded entirely to the Irish demands to make good on her pledges to avoid a hard border.
The British guarantee was set down in unambiguous terms – if the EU-UK agreement failed to provide for an open border, then the UK would ensure it. Leo Varadkar and his Ministers, having held the line in public terms with the EU against the British, allowed themselves some congratulations on it.
Risk of No Deal Increasing
The British have failed to come up with a solution of their own for a frictionless border — something all sides are committed to, fearing that reestablishing a customs border could well risk a violent backlash from die-hard Irish Republican Army militiamen and re-ignite sectarian hostilities.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier is calling on the British government to come up with alternatives for the border. He says the text should have come as “no surprise” and was just a legally-worded assessment of what had been agreed in the December negotiations.
May will reiterate the threat not to pay a divorce bill in meetings Thursday with Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, in which she will brief him on the outlines of a speech she is due to make Friday on what Britain wants in terms of a future trade deal with the EU
Tusk Challenges May Before Big Speech
European Council President Donald Turk challenged British Prime Minister Theresa May to present her own ideas on preventing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland as the two leaders held talks in London on Thursday.
Following the meeting, an official for Tusk said he and May had "an open and honest debate in a good atmosphere about the real political difficulties ahead of us."
Their meeting at Downing Street came a day after May rejected a draft EU deal proposing that Northern Ireland remain in the EU customs union if the two sides fail to find a better solution. The prime minister reacted angrily to the proposal, saying she would refuse anything that undermined the UK's constitutional integrity.
"The PM said that the draft text put forward by the European Commission yesterday was unacceptable to the UK as it would, if implemented, undermine the UK common market and constitutional integrity of the UK," May's office said in a statement following her meeting with Tusk.
EU Frustrated at May’s Red Lines
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said Thursday that British officials should stop pretending "that the U.K. could obtain a free trade deal with the EU with all the benefits of the single market without the obligations."
"Abandoning such ideas will enable us to begin building an ambitious future partnership based on the foundation of realism," he told a business gathering in Brussels.
British aims have been left vague so far — more than 18 months after the country voted to leave the EU — because May's Conservative government is divided. Some ministers want a clean break with the EU, while others hope to retain close economic alignment with the bloc to cushion the shock of Brexit.
British ambiguity collided this week with the hard problem of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which will be the only land frontier between the U.K. and the EU after Brexit.
Britain and the bloc agreed in December that there would be no customs posts or other impediments along the all-but-invisible border.
The EU says Britain has not set out how that can be achieved, so it made its own proposal Wednesday — which Britain rejected.
May said the plan, which would keep Northern Ireland inside the EU's customs union, would "undermine the constitutional integrity of the U.K."
Tusk said he was keen to hear whether the British government had a better solution.
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