Britain Is Making Brexit Impossible

At the eleventh hour, Britain has rejected a key component of Brexit. How is the EU supposed to deal with this?

View of the Houses of Parliament in London, England, April 9, 2010
View of the Houses of Parliament in London, England, April 9, 2010 (Geir Halvorsen)

With two months to go before the country is due to leave the EU, Britain has decided it can’t accept a key component of Brexit: the so-called Northern Ireland backstop, which could keep the province in the EU’s single market for goods, and the whole of the United Kingdom in a customs union with the EU, indefinitely so long as no alternative solution is found to prevent a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.

Parliament voted on Tuesday night to ask Prime Minister Theresa May to renegotiate Britain’s withdrawal with the EU and seek “alternative arrangements” to the backstop.

Two weeks ago, Parliament voted down the Brexit treaty she had negotiated altogether.

Exasperating

Seen from continental Europe, these eleventh-hour shenanigans are exasperating.

The backstop was only invented because Britain wouldn’t accept the (from the EU’s perspective) more obvious solutions: either a Norway-style deal, under which the country would remain in the single market, or a separate deal for Northern Ireland. Britain doesn’t want to remain tied to EU regulations, nor can it accept a different regulatory regime for Northern Ireland, which might create the need for a customs border in the Irish Sea.

But it is also committed to upholding the peace in Ulster. Closing the border would impede free travel and trade and risk reigniting the sectarian violence that plagued the northern half of Ireland for decades.

The EU has asked Britain to come up with precisely the sort of “alternative arrangements” it now claims to seek in order to square this circle. Neither side has come up with a better idea than the backstop.

Britain’s attitude

The backstop debacle is emblematic of the attitude taken by supporters of Brexit: let others find solutions to the problems leaving the EU creates and then attack those solutions.

Before the referendum, Brexiteers claimed the country could remain in the single market even though Norway and Switzerland have been denied that privilege.

When it turned out the EU meant it and remaining in the single market was not an option, leavers demanded market “access”. They promised that German car exporters would persuade EU leaders that a one-way free-trade deal was in the bloc’s best interest.

When it turned out EU leaders knew their own interests better than the British right and refused an arrangement that would see a third country freely trade with the EU without respecting its rules and regulations, the Brexiteers talked up a “Canada-style” free-trade agreement. But the EU maintained — as it had all along — that the parties needed to regulate Britain’s exit first before they could negotiate the post-Brexit relationship.

When Britain finally relented, the outcome was the withdrawal agreement that Parliament has now rejected.

Brexiteers at least recognize that, without an orderly withdrawal, there will be hardship. Britain’s own Treasury estimates that the kingdom’s economy will be 9.3 percent smaller under a no-deal scenario in fifteen years. It is a far cry from the extra £350 million the “leave” campaign promised to spend on health care each week.

Brexiteers argue it’s all worth and, amazingly, half the British people agree. (Which is why a second referendum would be pointless.) Don’t blame the EU for letting Britain lie in the bed it has made.