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Theresa May's Cabinet Duty is irrelevant, it's the Brexit Defense that really counts



  Boris Johnson
Theresa May is included in a bitter cabinet series with older Brexiteers including Boris Johnson and Liam Fox

Getty


Theresa May and her cabinet are currently in a heated and public discussion about possible Brexit customs regulations. Allegedly, it is about finding a solution to the Irish border in time for the European Council in June.

In reality, however, the ongoing dispute over customs is in reality little more than a displacement activity.

British aspirations for the future relationship are not for the EU and Ireland. Instead, they are waiting for a specific UK commitment regarding the details of the insurance policy or the backstop. In particular, they want to agree on the means of avoiding physical infrastructure and the associated controls at the Irish border if the future partnership between the UK and the EU does not succeed or if no agreement is reached on future relations.

Many will argue that such an attitude is not fair, but the EU is the larger party with the stronger bargaining power, and so it will be.

The UK could commit to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union, and a rescue operation would have to be agreed. Aspiration can never double as insurance.

While the United Kingdom agreed to such a rescue facility last December, it has not yet acted on the merits, apart from rejecting an attempt by the Commission to override the backstop legal form. But kicking can not go on forever.

Simon Coveney, Irish Foreign Secretary, has warned Britain that without the Irish backing there will be no exit agreement to the BBC : "We are not restoring hope … We expect a commitment from made by the British Government in December and again in March. "

But there is a reason why the UK avoided the issue. The Commission's proposal that Northern Ireland remain effectively in the EU Customs Union and that the Internal Market for goods (alongside provisions for other purely Irish issues such as electricity) could be both inedible and the only one that would definitely work. Should it come into force, this would inevitably lead to controls on goods coming to Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain and establishing a border in the United Kingdom. It would also eliminate the need for physical infrastructure and associated land border controls.

May has shot back that "no prime minister could ever agree to partition between Britain and Northern Ireland". The fact that their minority government needs the support of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists to have a majority and pass laws means that they have an even more important reason to enroll. The DUP has stated that it will not accept any customs border in the Irish Sea.

What other options does she have?

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May poses for a photo with Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Union Party (DUP), off Downing Street in London, June 26, 2017.

REUTERS / Stefan Wermuth

By definition, the backstop insurance position should be agreed before discussing the future relationship or the technology and trade facilitation methods. The only real alternative would be that May could persuade the EU to apply the backstop solution across the UK, which would placate the DUP, if not the hard Brexiters. However, the EU will not accept this.

While Northern Ireland, because of its unique circumstances, can obtain special access to European goods and agricultural markets, it rejects the EU's intention to make the retaining wall a basic offer for the whole of the United Kingdom. Many will argue that such an attitude is not fair, but the EU is and will be the larger party with the stronger bargaining power. The sooner the UK settles, the sooner it can finalize the exit agreement and focus on the future relationship.

It will certainly be difficult to agree in May to the Commission's proposal for a safety stop. But if she wants to push the Brexit negotiations, at least she has to agree on something similar in content. In fact, Thursday's reports indicate that the government is considering its own "temporary" bailout. Whatever the content of this proposal, it will inevitably involve difficult discussions within its party.

But, finally, if Mai and Brexiters are really so confident that other solutions for the Irish border will be found as soon as the negotiations on the future relationship begin, they should not be too angry about the very nature of insurance policy. After all, we'll never need it, right?

Sam Lowe is Research Fellow at the Center for European Reform and co-founder of the UK Trade Forum. Follow him on Twitter: @SamuelMarcLowe.


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