Unless a solution can be found on the question of avoiding a hard border post-Brexit between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, then the UK will be staying in the EU Single Market and customs union.
That on the face of it appears to be the outcome of last night’s frantic talks to reach a phase one agreement between the UK and the European Union. At least, that’s how paragraph 49 of the 15-page agreement is being interpreted.
You see, the thing is, nobody thought that Mrs May could find a magic way to have an open border on the island of Ireland once Britain leaves the EU. And the thing is, she hasn’t.
The issue has been hung in the air, to be resolved later. And if it can’t be resolved, then the only solution available will be to stay in the Single Market and customs union. Something that Theresa May had – foolishly – completely ruled out.
On the question of the Irish border, paragraph 49 of the agreement states:
“In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”
Labour MP Chuka Umunna explained what this means on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning regarding the specific issue of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland:
“Given that there was consensus in the House of Commons not to have special arrangements for one part of the UK… it’s clear that the fallback position is that we would remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market if at the end of this process they haven’t been able to resolve that issue.
“I mean that’s a radical altering of the government’s position to get to the next phase and it’s necessary, I’m not attacking them for that, I just don’t think they should have set those red lines in the first place.”
So, in summary, nothing’s really been settled yet. The hard talks are still to come.
The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, was right to paraphrase Winston Churchill this morning, “This is not the end, but it is the end of the beginning.”
The Evening Standard reported that, “While opposition politicians questioned whether the deal would satisfy hardline Brexiteers on Conservative benches, UK business leaders said they were “breathing a huge sigh of relief”.
Whether that relief will be short-lived we will see in the difficult days, weeks and months ahead… but not years. There is less than a year to resolve the issues.
All Theresa May has done is to give herself some breathing space… but not much.
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