A weak hand made weaker
Last June, British Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap general election, which she justified as an attempt to strengthen her hand during the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. That decision, as was clear in the early hours of June 9, and abundantly clear during the negotiations in recent weeks, has made her hand considerably weaker.
May ran one of the most inept, lifeless campaigns in modern UK history. She turned a 17-seat majority into a razor-thin minority, forcing the Conservatives into a hold-your-nose type coalition with the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The pro-Brexit DUP, which controls the Northern Ireland Assembly, have become a key, and completely avoidable, impediment to making headway on negotiations for an amicable divorce with the EU.
Recent negotiations between the UK and EU stalled over the DUP’s refusal to accept a post-Brexit continuation of the current ‘soft border’ between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, stated that her party “will not accept any form of regulatory divergence” from the rest of the UK. European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, wants the border issue resolved before further negotiations at the European Council on December 15. However, if May defies the DUP it could result in their withdrawal from the fragile post-election coalition, and the collapse of May’s government.
Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, while publicly sympathetic to May’s political conundrum, has promised to use Ireland’s veto power to block further negotiations, if guarantees over the border aren’t provided. Ireland’s position is that the status quo, that of a border with no customs and no tariffs, should remain in place.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, the economies of Belfast and Dublin have become far more integrated; and the UK’s departure from the EU, along with a hard Irish border in place, has the potential to do more damage to Ireland economically than to any other EU country (except for the UK, of course!). And as Peter Geoghegan emphasized recently in Foreign Policy, Varadkar’s political position back home isn’t that much more stable than May’s. Concession over the border would be hugely unpopular and could result in serious electoral consequences for his Fine Gael party government.
One solution to the impasse, which had been circulating recently, would be the UK’s refusal to actually enforce a hard border in practice. No inspections would be made, and no customs would be charged for goods making there way into Northern Ireland. The border would be hard in name only. For a whole host of reasons, this would not be feasible. Principally, however, the UK would be in violation of the World Trade Organization’s most-favoured nation principle, which states that special treatment extended to one country, in this case Ireland, would have to be extended to all countries.
With Ireland unlikely to budge, and a do-nothing solution untenable, May’s government is left hoping that they can reach a compromise with the DUP. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg has suggested that Foster’s public indignation, at the idea of a post-Brexit soft border, may have served to give her party enough political cover to accept some kind of compromise prior to December 15. The Conservatives will certainly hope that’s the case.
If May wants negotiations to progress past thorny border issues, and on to the all-important issue of future trade arrangements with the EU, she will need to pacify the domestic political forces that were unleashed by her ill-advised political gamble.
Zach Salzmann is a second-year MA candidate at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs, specializing in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. His research interests include ethnic conflict, transitional justice, and democratic backsliding in Europe. He holds a BA in History from Carleton University.
Featured image credit: Flickr