Brexit: There are no easy choices for Theresa May
Only two of the following three can be achieved: no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an unqualified Brexit and the sanctity of European Union’s single marketUpdated: Jan 16, 2019 18:58 IST
Theresa May, the British prime minister, is in an unenviable position. On the one hand, a big chunk of her own party MPs won’t agree with her Brexit plan and, on the other, they wouldn’t even let her leave 10 Downing Street. Her Brexit withdrawal plan, negotiated over a two-year period, was rejected by 432 votes (with only 202 in her favour) in the House of Commons on Tuesday. However, the Conservative MPs who voted against her Brexit deal looked likely to support her in a no confidence motion moved against her by the Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. And if she survives this vote, she will have to submit an alternative Brexit plan very soon before the British Parliament. It is unclear what concessions the European Union (EU) will be willing to offer. Even if the EU offers some, would those be enough? Because if they are not, the road ahead becomes a lot trickier. It could mean a second Brexit referendum — which, frankly speaking, doesn’t sound as absurd as it once did— or a no deal Brexit. The latter will be disorderly and chaotic, leaving businesses in the United Kingdom vulnerable to a range of problems in the short to medium term. Meeting the March 29 Brexit deadline will require some herculean effort from here on.
At the heart of the tussle is the “backstop” — an arrangement to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The latter continues to remain an EU member. If the UK and the EU do not agree to a trade deal during the transition period after Brexit is triggered, the backstop in Ms May’s plan would entail Northern Ireland remaining in a single customs territory with the EU. This effectively undermines, pro-Brexiteers argue with some justification, the entire Brexit push. Moreover, the UK cannot leave the backstop without the EU being on board. The EU, too, is hardly wrong in insisting on the backstop because any trade across the Irish border without checks cannot be allowed without Northern Ireland following some of EU’s regulations. Effectively, only two of the following three can be achieved: no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; an unqualified Brexit; and the sanctity of EU’s single market.
This, indeed, is a complex trilemma, one which the British people were mostly unaware of when they voted for Brexit on June 23, 2016. This tells us something about the usefulness of calling referendums with binary choices on extremely complex issues. The entire world should learn from the UK’s experience.