Despite some positive progress in negotiations in the past weeks, the Irish border remains a key obstacle to a Brexit deal. A lack of support for the Chequers Plan in both Parliament and the EU, no agreement on a trade deal, and the issue of the Irish border backstop all hinder the process of reaching a deal and may result in an extension of the negotiation period. This uncertainty over the final agreement leaves the British government with no clear direction over Brexit.
The failure of Chequer´s plan
Failure to conclude the Withdrawal Agreement by October 2018, as both the EU and UK had agreed to in the December 2017 Joint Agreement, creates uncertainty around reaching a deal by the expected time-framework. The Prime Minister’s so-called ‘soft-Brexit’ Chequers plan received little support from Parliament. Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg stated that, “Theresa May’s soft Brexit agreement could be worse than a no deal”.
Disagreement amongst the MPs and with European Commission over the plan calls in to question the ability of the current government to provide a workable plan for all stakeholders. The former Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson both resigned, calling Chequers a “suicide vest” for Britain and Conservative Party. The EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier regarded the plan as “strongly opposed” to the Union’s organisational objectives. In fact, Barnier has already proclaimed that the EU is preparing for a no-deal scenario. Moreover the European Research Group, the Democratic Unionist Party, the First Minister of Scotland, and Scottish Tory leader have all opposed the Chequers plan as they argue that the UK should remain in the Customs Union.
Irish backstop and extended negotiation period
The failure to provide a draft of withdrawal agreement by October, 2018 as both the EU and the UK agreed in the Joint Report of December 2017, creates uncertainty around reaching a deal within the expected timeframe. One of the most important issues in these negotiations is that of the Irish backstop. Significantly, the issue of the ‘backstop’ was mentioned when the UK government agreed to negotiate it in order to allow talks to progress beyond ‘phase one’ of talks. It refers to a plan to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where this cannot be achieved through a broader trade deal between the UK and EU.
The Northern Ireland backstop is an issue not referred to in either the EU’s initial negotiating guidelines or in the following directives. The European Commission has proposed that Northern Ireland remain within the Customs Union and broadly continue to apply European rules on goods and trade, to allow for frictionless access to the EU. The UK has claimed that this would create a border in the Irish Sea. The Prime Minister therefore suggested that the UK as a whole stay in the Customs Union until December 2021 at the latest, but the EU has said that a backstop will not work if it is time-limited.
President of the European Council Donald Tusk has stated that there are “no grounds of optimism” regarding the Irish border. That leaves the UK government with no clear direction and, once again, a need to create a new plan that would be supported by both the Cabinet and the European Council. Tusk said that the EU leaders would discuss the ‘no deal’ scenario and make “every effort to reach the best agreement possible for all sides”.
A foreseeable ‘no deal’ outcome
The inconclusive discussions over the Irish border and the EU’s favoured position on the Customs Union continue to hinder process on reaching a deal. A lack of support for the Prime Minister’s proposals by both the UK Parliament and the EU has led to a situation where a deal might not be reached in time. While the EU and the UK agreed on a ‘temporary’ customs arrangement, cabinet Brexiters have insisted that the UK must have the power to leave the arrangement that has been negotiated as a means of avoiding a hard border in Ireland.
‘No deal’ seems to be the plan B for Britain at this stage. Plan A is to achieve a trade agreement with the EU that allows tariff and non-tariff barrier-free access to European markets, whilst remaining autonomous in terms of laws and regulations, and avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland. This plan A appears to be fading away, though, as EU and UK fail to agree on such a deal.
Maria Ioannou is a Campaigns Assistant at an NGO and interested in issues related to Brexit and European politics.