Theresa May’s response to today’s Brexit developments has been revealing. At PMQs, she called staying in a customs union with the EU a ‘betrayal’ of the referendum result, a definite ramping up of her rhetoric, and said that ‘no UK prime minister could ever agree to what the EU’s draft legal text proposes on Northern Ireland.’
What makes May’s comments so interesting is that many believe, including the Foreign Secretary, that the EU is raising the stakes on the Irish border to try and get the UK, as a whole, to commit to staying in a customs union with the EU. May seems to want to make clear to other EU governments that this is a non-starter for her. Her comments on Northern Ireland, which undoubtedly box her in, again seem designed to make EU governments realise just how unacceptable these proposals are to her; and to show that she isn’t going to change her mind on this. I suspect that her hope is that this approach will lead to some EU government discretely urging the Commission not to push the Irish border issue too hard now for fear of collapsing the talks. Whether this approach works remain to be seen. So far, the EU 27 have remained pretty united on the phase one issues.
But there has been one encouraging moment today for those who want a reasonable deal between the two sides. Michel Barnier said today at his press conference that the fall-back option in the text would not lead to a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK as there were ‘technical solutions’ that could be found. But if there are ‘technical solutions’ that can be found to prevent a border between a Northern Ireland that is in the customs union and effectively in parts of the single market and the rest of the UK, then surely these ‘technical solutions’ could work to prevent a hard border between a Northern Ireland that remains part of the UK economically and the Republic?