Nineteen months have passed since the UK triggered Article 50 – and just a few remain before a Brexit deal is required – but there is still no sense of an ending. The Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab today met Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to inform him that divisions on the UK side made an agreement currently impossible. Talks have now been put on hold and few expect meaningful progress at Wednesday’s summit.
Worse, the problem is not merely one of time but substance: the Irish border. Theresa May, in common with the Leave campaign, has vowed to avoid a hard border either between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, or on the island of Ireland. But the EU’s current solution – UK membership of the customs union until a viable alternative is devised (“the backstop”) – remains politically unacceptable to May.
Tory Brexiteers fear the UK being locked into a permanent customs union – denying it the right to strike free trade deals with other countries (recall, for instance, that income tax was a “temporary measure” introduced in 1799 to cover the cost to Britain of the Napoleonic Wars). The EU retorts that a time-limited backstop – as demanded by Leave cabinet ministers (who are busy briefing resignation threats) – is no backstop at all.
In addition, the DUP, on whom May depends for her parliamentary majority, will not accept any divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (under the current proposal, Northern Ireland would remain in the single market for goods). Brexiteer dreams of “Empire 2.0” – a swashbuckling Britannia striking trade deals with the Anglosphere – are being thwarted by the legacy of Empire 1.0: the Irish border.