December 5, 2017 / 4:11 PM / a year ago

Breakingviews - Brexit deal hinges on enlightened obfuscation

A man runs past boats moored in the Elizabeth Marina in St Helier, Jersey, Britain November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples - RC1B85B2D960

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Obfuscation offers the only hope of a breakthrough in deadlocked Brexit talks. A plan for Northern Ireland to comply with some European Union rules after the United Kingdom leaves the bloc has met with opposition in Belfast and demands for similar treatment elsewhere. Prime Minister Theresa May’s best hope is to fudge tough decisions, and use the threat of a chaotic exit – or another election – to quash dissent.

May’s weakness was again exposed on Monday when a British offer to maintain “regulatory alignment” between Ireland’s northern and southern parts was spiked at the 11th hour following objections from the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). That concession is central to avoiding the reintroduction of a land border in Ireland – a key condition for Britain moving on to the next phase of Brexit talks with the EU.

To salvage the agreement, May has to come up with a new form of words acceptable to the DUP, which is propping up her minority government. In reality, any solution would likely involve kicking the problem down the road, as the trading relationship with the Republic of Ireland depends on any broader deal that Britain agrees with the EU. Yet special treatment for Northern Ireland would still leave May vulnerable to demands for similar concessions from Scotland, Wales and even London. The last-minute setback will also make it harder to get Dublin and Brussels to accept a vague compromise.

May’s main source of leverage is what might happen if she fails. The DUP will be reluctant to trigger an election that could usher in a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn, which would be more sympathetic to its Irish nationalist adversaries. Dublin will want to avoid a chaotic Brexit that will disrupt relationships with a major trading partner. Other pro-EU politicians in Britain fear a similar outcome. Obfuscation might just prove preferable to these less palatable alternatives.


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