Close shave set in make-or-break Brexit

Editorial | Mary Ma 12 Oct 2018

Will European Union leaders meeting on Wednesday seal the outlines for a Brexit agreement with Britain so that both sides can close the deal in November?

Well, moods are clearly improving on both sides of the English Channel.

Of course, the optimism has to do with recent upbeat remarks made by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who said both sides were close to striking a deal after so many months of negotiations.

Although it may be argued Juncker's upbeat quotes rang hollow, there are reasons to take his views more seriously this time.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier immediately followed up with a speech stating the bloc's revised position on the Irish border. British Prime Minister Theresa May has so far rejected ideas that would create a border symbolically separating Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain - including an imaginary line in the North Sea - or a customs union that would make it impossible for London to pursue its own trade policies after Brexit.

Barnier is now saying the European Union respects Britain's territorial integrity and, while it wishes to keep Northern Ireland in the EU single market, the only "visible systematic" customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain would be the scanning of barcodes on lorries and containers, to be conducted on ferries or in transit ports, and the filling out of online customs declarations.

It's known as the backstop compromise. May's cliff-edge strategy is apparently paying off.

However, would the compromise be palatable enough for May to assure critics at home? Not as far as the Conservatives' coalition ally - Democratic Unionist Party - is concerned. The party's ultranationalists fear any attempt to keep Northern Ireland in the EU customs union could eventually split Northern Ireland from United Kingdom.

Although the DUP holds only 10 seats in the British parliament, May has to rely on their support for a majority. But she seems to have learned from the debacle in December when a near goal on a backstop arrangement was prevented by a DUP objection. May can no longer rely on her small ally if a soft Brexit is to be made possible.

Instead, she was reported to be reaching out recently to some Labor MPs known to be amenable to a soft Brexit.

Could May be laying the ground work in anticipation of an inevitable fallout with the DUP? Although she has yet to say publicly if she has given her nod to Barnier's latest counterproposal, a recent episode in Parliament was revealing.

When it was DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds' turn to speak, he was so indignant he pointed his finger at the government benches to say emphatically to Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab that his party won't tolerate anything that would separate Northern Ireland from the country, and reminded Raab of the December rebellion.

The episode was revealing as, if May isn't treating Barnier's proposal seriously, would the DUP be issuing the threat?

No wonder the pound has found support at the current level and is looking like it is set to rise.

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