Theresa May is failing to broker an agreement within her cabinet as to what the British negotiating position on trade relations should be, weeks before the June 28-29 EU Summit.
The problem is the Irish question, which threatens to derail Brexit negotiations and calls into question the transition deal that is now taken for granted.
The promise of a position, tomorrow
On Wednesday the UK promised to publish detailed plans before June. What is on offer is a White Paper tomorrow, failing to come up with a negotiating position today.
Essentially, Theresa May is negotiating with her own party. Last week, May divided her cabinet to consider two positions, which were to be debated on Tuesday. The debate did not lead to a single position.
Theresa May is advocating a Custom’s Partnership with the EU, in which the UK will voluntarily align itself with the Customs Union, collecting duties on behalf of the EU. That arrangement will still have no UK contributions to the EU, no freedom of movement and no European Court of Justice jurisdiction over trade disputes.
Hard Brexiteers want a regime that is sovereign, without tariff collections, freedom to sign international trade agreements and “maximum facilitation” (max fac) in border control management.
David Davies is promising to detail this position in a 100-page position paper to be distributed to EU leaders before the June 28-29 EU Summit. What the paper will contain remains unclear, but the Brexit Secretary offers assurances that it will be “significant,” “detailed” and “ambitious.” According to BBC, the paper drafter by the Brexit Department entails all kinds of policy detail on aviation, financial services and fisheries, leaning towards a “max fac” approach.
The problem is Ireland.
Ireland could push negotiations to “no deal”
One can no longer assume that the White Paper will address pressing questions for Brussels and Dublin.
EU partners assume that that the UK is committed to “no border” in Ireland, although Theresa May is changing her language with references to the absence of a “hard border,” which suggests there can be a border with light infrastructure.
For Dublin a “no border” commitment was a precondition to trade talks; that is the commitment the British government signed onto in December 2017.
On Tuesday, the Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar made clear that the technological solution advocated by Brexit hardliners was off the table for Dublin. He also warned that no deal on the interrelated issues of customs and borders does mean that the overall withdrawal agreement is called into question.
“Certainly the customs partnership, as proposed by the UK last June, isn’t workable, that’s the view of the (EU) taskforce and the EU27 and has been rejected, but I do think the customs partnership is closer to being made workable than this proposal of ‘max fac’,” Varadkar told parliament.
These views echoed Michel Barnier’s assertion on Tuesday that “little progress” has been made in negotiations since March.
Brexit hardliners think Brussels is using Ireland instrumentally
Meanwhile, not everyone accepts that Ireland is a political challenge for London.
The Times of London reported on Monday on the confrontation between May and her hardline backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Rees-Mogg is among the hardliners who believe that the promise of an open Irish border is for Brussels rather than London to keep. What he is proposing is keeping the Irish border open, forcing the Republic and Brussels to take on the political responsibility for setting up an infrastructure.
May reminded him that under the Good Friday Agreement the Secretary of State is required to hold a referendum on the regions’ membership of the UK (a unity poll). According to The Times, the British prime minister is not confident that the UK would win this referendum.
Mr Rees-Mogg is arguing that Brussels uses the issue of Ireland instrumentally to derail Brexit. “If they either do not want to or simply cannot broker a deal, a deal will not be done,” Rees-Mogg wrote in an article published by the Daily Telegraph.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable told the BBC that any physical infrastructure in Northern Ireland could become the target of a resurgent militant movement.