The clock is ticking for May as the March 29 deadline for Britain to leave the European Union is fast approaching. Theresa May has said that she is determined to deliver Brexit on time. She insists that departure date will not change.
The UK is due to leave the EU in 52 days, yet London and Brussels are arguing over whether the deal clinched in November can be changed, raising the possibility of a delay to Brexit, a last minute deal or a no deal exit.
Britain, Ireland and the EU want to avoid physical checks in the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland that ceased with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The border is open with no controls as both the UK and Ireland are part of the EU.
Under the current Brexit deal, the 310 mile Irish border would become the only land border between the EU and the UK. This would mean checks on goods crossing it, unless both sides could reach a comprehensive trade deal. As a way to prevent a hard border, Brussels and London agreed on a so-called backstop – basically a promise that unless the sides come up with a better idea, then the UK would remain bound by EU market and customs rules so that goods would not have to be checked. It would keep the UK in a single customs territory with the EU and leave Northern Ireland effectively in the EU’s single market for goods.
A number of MPs fear the UK could be trapped in this agreement for years leaving it unable to strike its own trade deals in goods with the rest of the world. In January 2019 MPs rejected Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement by 432 votes to 202, with nearly 120 conservative MPs voting against their leader. Since the voting, Parliament has instructed May to replace its most contentious element – an insurance policy covering the possible future agreements for the border between EU-member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland. The draft deal envisages a July 2020 decision on what would have to be done to make sure the border stays open after the post-Brexit transition runs its course. Which means if a new trade deal is not in place by then.
Britain would need to extend the transition period once beyond December 2020 or go into a customs agreement that would cover all of the UK. If these arrangements are made Northern Ireland would be aligned more closely with the EU’s customs rules and production standards. Any changes to or termination of those agreements after the end of the transition would have to be agreed between London and Brussels.
Theresa May, who took the prime minister job shortly after the Brexit vote, has spent her last few years painstakingly putting together what she thought would work as a compromise deal, allowing for an orderly withdrawal from the EU and preventing as much chaos as possible while hoving to the reality that the members of the EU are under no obligation to abide by the promise that leave campaigners made voters.
The EU had continuously said it will not re-open the withdrawal agreement – the so-called 'divorce bill' laying out the terms of how the UK leaves. Brexiteer MPs in her Conservative Party are particularly unhappy with the so-called backstop provision intended to keep the border with Ireland free-flowing. Some fear it could leave Britain trapped in the European Union’s trade rules if the backstop was time-limited or replaced with alternative arrangements.
Hence May has been trying to secure changes to backstop arrangement – the 'insurance' policy to avoid a return to border checks on the island of Ireland. She visited Dublin and Brussels last week seeking EU agreement on changes to the backstop, but the EU with its stand is making a solution difficult to come by. She told MPs that talks with the EU are at a crucial stage and “we need to hold our nerve”. She said she believes she can reach a deal that parliament can support.
Writer is a freelance researcher on International Diplimacy