Deal or No Deal, The EU Prefers The Brexit Devil It Knows

As talks collapsed between the EU and Britain, it was the most dramatic day in British politics since the general election. Close to a deal that would allow the UK to progress to trade and future relations negotiations, May’s hand was forced by the DUP and she walked away.

The wording of the leaked text infuriated the DUP whose ten MPs the Conservatives need for their majority. However, Corbyn should not be shining his shoes in case of a call from Buckingham Palace. Nor will May be losing much sleep over the prospect. To use her words: “Nothing has changed.”

Rhetoric is slowly converging with reality. The impossibility of maintaining a soft border between the North and the Republic of Ireland while also leaving the Customs’ Union etc. is becoming clearer.

EU understands that May’s government is pathetically weak, but that does not mean it will fall.

The Fixed-term Parliament Act means that this government is relatively secure. It can lose votes in the House of Commons. The DUP can give ministers hell and even defeat the government on Brexit. However, the only way Corbyn gets the keys to Downing Street is by a specific vote of confidence or if two-thirds of MPs vote for a general election that Labour wins.

The Conservatives are not going to vote for a snap election. Corbyn needs the unionists first to vote the government out, then to vote him in. Without them, he simply does not have the numbers to form a government. The DUP are not going install as prime minister the man who stood with Sinn Fein three weeks after the Brighton Bomb. Full stop. End of argument. And they can dictate May’s negotiating policy without risking that. Everything else is just social media hysteria.

The EU does not need to reinvent the wheel

If the choice for the DUP is between the Conservatives and Corbyn, the choice for the EU is not between May or Corbyn, it is between May or Boris Johnson (or similar). In that realistic world, they choose May.

Had Jean-Claude Juncker come out of negotiations and sung a paean of joy, he would not have praised her as he did: she is a tough negotiator, he said. Donald Tusk said that a deal was still possible. In fact - far from the obstructionist image of Brexit tabloids - they gave May time. The deadline was extended.

What we can expect is what the EU is best at - a fudge. A form of words will be found that gives May a win, while placating Ireland’s worried government. In short, the issue will be kicked into the long grass.

The government has failed to solve the border issue not through lack of energy but because the only way it can be solved is by rejecting the main plank of its Brexit policy: leaving the Single Market and Customs’ Union.

Leaving the Customs’ Union requires a border. That border will either be between the North and the Republic, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The first is unacceptable to Ireland, the second unacceptable to the DUP.

The idea that the UK can replicate either the Single Market or the Customs Union with a special UK/EU version is absurd. The EU does not need to reinvent the wheel. The difference between regulatory alligment and no regulatory divergence is best left to lawyers. Effectively, it means remaining in the existing structures.  

By fudging the issue, the EU will help May politically but will solve nothing in terms of policy. The problems remain. And it may be that that is where they see the solution. By helping May now they hope she’ll climb down later when the consequences of a bespoke deal are clear.

So May might secure a mini-victory if a deal is struck later in the week and the EU is thought to have made concessions but they still hold the cards. Equally, while getting the EU to allow for a transition period was seen as a victory for May, it was a greater victory for the EU.

A transition - with the UK effectively in the Single Market and Customs Union - provides a cushion. May has no parliamentary majority for no deal. Domestically her position is weaker when you factor in the House of Lords who can justifiably reject crashing out after her failure to secure a majority at the general election.

The EU has the potential to create a zombie government that cannot negotiate an acceptable Brexit deal but will not die either

By allowing the British to progress the talks to the future relations, the EU will have May where it want her.

The impossibilism of Brexit will become exposed. Then, the more it thinks Parliament will reject a no deal Brexit, the more the EU can toughen its negotiating stance. The EU has the potential to create a zombie government that cannot negotiate an acceptable Brexit deal but will not die either. If no deal is rejected by Parliament then the government will be in Brexit limbo. Neither in nor out, the EU can decide whether or not to give more time for “negotiations”.

The prime minister is trapped between a parliament where there is no majority for no deal, her right flank and the DUP who want a bespoke deal, and the EU who will only give Britain what is in its interests. That might mean semi-permanent limbo status for Britain within the Single Market but not the EU. If so, May’s position becomes untenable. A second referendum might become the only feasible way to break the deadlock. And who knows how public opinion will react to any of this?

So the paradox is that the likelihood of Britain remaining - even loosely - in the EU has increased. Also the chances of the UK crashing out increased.

That may be the stark choice we are asked to make.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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