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Analysis

Why did May ever agree N. Ireland could be vassal province?

by Hugo Dixon | 01.03.2018

Theresa May says “no UK prime minister could ever agree” to the EU’s Irish border proposals. But she did precisely that in her pre-Christmas panic.

She was so desperate to conclude the first phase of the Brexit talks in December that she signed an agreement that could turn Northern Ireland into a vassal province of the EU. The draft legal text that the EU published yesterday is merely a reasonable elaboration of what our brilliant prime minister had already said “yes” to.

Here’s the key phrase May agreed to in December:

“In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment [for Northern Ireland] with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation [on the island of Ireland], the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 [Good Friday] Agreement.”

The prime minister signed up to this language because she is rightly concerned that the UK economy could fall off a cliff next year – and the EU said it wouldn’t agree to talk about a transition deal to cushion the blow unless we made significant progress on the key divorce issues, including the Irish border.

May only got into such a pickle because she triggered Article 50 last March, starting the two-year countdown to our exit from the EU without a viable plan. She should have got the EU to agree to discuss the future before pressing this button. It’s not as if she wasn’t warned. Our former ambassador to the EU told the government that we’d get “screwed” if it triggered Article 50 prematurely.

So when Brexiters and Northern Ireland’s DUP now complain we are getting screwed, they know whom to blame: our prime minister, not the EU.

What happens now?

The good news for May is that the EU doesn’t seem to be insisting that talks on the transition and our eventual future relationship with it can’t go ahead until she agrees to the text on the Irish border.

This means the prime minister may be able to get a deal on transition at the EU summit later this month. Amidst the sound and fury over Ireland, she smuggled out another u-turn yesterday: agreeing that EU citizens arriving here during the transition will get essentially the same rights as those who come before – although not to “family reunion”, an issue which the European Parliament is unhappy about. That’s the right policy, but it marks a rapid flip-flop. Only a month ago, she said she would “battle the EU” over this.

To get her transition deal, May just needs one more u-turn: to agree to follow new EU rules during the transition without a vote on them, something Jacob Rees-Mogg and his pack of Brexit extremists say would turn us into lackeys. If she camouflages this flip-flop with another row, she may be able to throw them off her scent.

The really big climbdown, though, will be on leaving a customs union with the EU. The prime minister almost certainly doesn’t have enough support to ram her policy through Parliament.

Although she has postponed confrontation on the customs union with Parliament for a couple of months, she will eventually have to face the music. But that could actually suit her quite well. She will be able to tell Rees-Mogg and his attack dogs that she has to do what MPs say because Parliament is sovereign. All she’ll then have to do to solve the Irish border problem is accept regulatory alignment with the EU on goods and agriculture for the UK.

Such a solution, of course, would turn the whole country into a vassal state. We’d have to follow EU trade policies and regulations on a big chunk of our industry without a vote on them. That’s not taking back control. It’s losing control.

There’s only one way to solve the Irish border problem and avoid either Northern Ireland or the whole UK being turned into vassals: stay in the EU. The sooner politicians were honest about this, the better.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

4 Responses to “Why did May ever agree N. Ireland could be vassal province?”

  • “Such a solution, of course, would turn the whole country into a vassal state. We’d have to follow EU trade policies and regulations on a big chunk of our industry without a vote on them. That’s not taking back control. It’s losing control.”

    well, voters in Norway are quite happy with such an arrangement.
    it lets them think that they control their fisheries, farming and borders, yet are pretty much obliged to follow EU rules (officially or indirectly).
    methink that the same kind of fudge could quite easily be sold to the british public by “soft brexiteers”.
    a democratic and sovereign fraud for sure, but except for hacks and pundits, most voters don’t care about the big fancy issues enough for them to put their welfare into danger.

    I honestly don’t understand why Westminster and nr 10 are not put under siege everyday by protesters (brexit and remain alike). sure there are firestorms on social media, but “the street” is eerily calm (with skin-deep anger)

  • This who brexit mess is simply because people don’t think. The sheep believed the bull on the bus. Now we will have to be satisfied with whatever the EU gives us. But still the brexiteers are too stupid to see that.
    If the EU and the UK sign up to this agreement then there is no reason for the UK to continue to forsibly and deceit hang on to Scotland. Scotland does not need England to survive. In fact it’s the other way around. I’m all for Scottish independence.
    The stupid brexiteers think of the empire. They forget it’s gone. The commonwealth is not the empire. It is just England hanging on to its past. Once England cannot give them money. They will leave the commonwealth. Anything England wants from the commonwealth countries will come at a high price. India has already stated they want free movement if they are to trade with us. Australia will be the same and will all the other countries Canada. Not to mention the enormous expense of transport. Dealing with food going rotten in transit or while waiting for customs clearance. There is already talk of weeks of delays for transport coming in from Europe. Produce will rot or costs will sky rocket or both.
    If only labour would take the remain stance. And leave the Tories with the leave stance. Then we will have an election which might save the UK. Sadly you don’t have any good leader in Westminster unlike here in Scotland where we have a little woman who is not scared to make decisions to improve our country. Believe me there are mistakes the snp make, it’s human, but in the long road people are better off in Scotland and our public services are much better.