The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, made a rare “half-full” statement on Brexit negotiations on Friday;
“In terms of what has been agreed so far, it’s about 75%,” Barnier told France 2 TV.
However, Ireland is in the last 25% and Barnier admitted negotiations could still fail. Although both sides are committed to keeping a free flow of people and goods, without checkpoints, there is no mutually acceptable solution on customs checks. Dismembering Northern Ireland from the British economy is unlikely, at least while the British government is dependent on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for its parliamentary majority.
The so-called “backstop” solution agreed between London and Brussels in December 2017 is meant to safeguard the invisible border principle. If all else fails, the UK will have to agree to N. Ireland remaining a part of the Customs Union, effectively shifting the border to the Irish Sea.
The European Commission is eager to maintain the whole of the UK in the Single Market. Pressure to this effect is mounting in London, as Theresa May was forced to deal with a House of Lords demand of the UK government exploring “a Custom’s Union” deal during Brexit negotiations, in line with Labour’s position.
Squaring the circle, the British government has long insisted they will achieve both exiting the Custom’s Union and ensuring that “no regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.” According to Bloomberg, the European Commission is now willing to insist that all of the UK remains in the Single Market, taking off the table the possibility of N. Ireland remaining alone.
That could drive the negotiations towards a “no deal” scenario, which several British cabinet members have been entertaining. Earlier this week, we learned that the European Commission is legally preparing for a cliff-edge scenario, which could call into question even the transition period theoretically agreed upon. The test will be whether London is willing to formalize the December 2017 non-binding agreement with a written document providing guarantees for Ireland.