During her visit to Belfast last week Theresa May dropped a political bombshell by reneging on the European Union’s proposal for a backstop on the Irish border in the event that no other agreement is made in relation to Brexit.
According to the British Prime Minister, it is time for the EU to drop what she calls its inflexible view on the border and “evolve” its position in order to avoid the Brexit impasse.
In a speech to local politicians and business leaders, Ms May said, “The economic and constitutional dislocation of a formal ‘third country’ customs border within our own country is something I will never accept, and I believe no British prime minister could ever accept.”
Prime minister May now depends heavily on the support of the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for her political survival, something that seems to be affecting her judgement.
Having previously gone along with the EU plans for a backstop, Theresa May now believes it would create a barrier between Northern Ireland and Britain leaving the people of the Six Counties “without their own voice” in trade negotiations.
Meanwhile the main political parties there have largely excluded themselves from having a voice since they pulled down the governance structure at Stormont set up under the Good Friday Agreement.
Having divided her own party with the publication of a white paper on how Britain will leave the EU, Theresa May believes Europe should “not simply fall back on to previous positions which have already been proven unworkable”, but should evolve its position.
In recent days the EU has urged citizens, business and member states to take action now in preparation for the 30th March 2019 deadline as concerns for a no-deal Brexit loom large.
In the worst-case scenario, four million people across the EU and Britain could find themselves enmeshed in a legal limbo, border checks could return, transportation will be disrupted and supply chains will break down.
According to the EU Commission, “There is no certainty that an agreement will be reached. Preparation must therefore be stepped up immediately at all levels and taking into account all possible outcomes.”
Many of the preparations can only be done by businesses and citizens and the EU is urging that they prepare for the scenario of the UK becoming a third country, where no EU law would apply.
Negotiators remain hopeful of striking a deal on withdrawal by the October deadline. But if that doesn’t happen in time there will be no transition period and no extra time to prepare.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has moved to put in place preliminary measures for a no-deal situation by indicating that up to 1,000 officials will be employed for customs, veterinary and export checks.
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe tried to soften the position by saying that Ireland remains open to the possibility of an alternative backstop deal, so long as it’s better than the EU proposal and is legally operable.
Mr Donohoe has however said that this country will not agree to anything that can be seen to undermine its participation in the single market or the economic integrity of the EU.