WARNING: This article contains frequent use of the word “Brexit,” a ridiculous word that sucks but which remains the only one we’ve got.
Remember Brexit?? Lol??? Among all the bad things that happen all the time now, I would forgive you, sweet troubled American, for forgetting that Britain voted last year to leave the European Union.
But this week saw some of the most dramatic news since the vote itself, so it’s worth a little update while you eat your Friday Big American Beef Sandwich. Prime Minister Theresa May’s premiership was born out of Brexit—she became prime minister when David Cameron resigned following the shocking result of the Brexit referendum—and her fate rests upon it. This week, she walked right up to the precipice of disaster, and she seems to have escaped. For now.
May’s whole leadership is predicated on Brexit, and earlier this year, she made it all so much harder for herself. She called a general election for June, ostensibly to get a clear mandate from the public for Brexit negotiations, but actually because she thought Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was a weak opponent whom she could crush. She was wrong! (I was wrong, also.) Jezza increased Labour’s share of seats, forcing May to form a very shaky coalition government with the ten Members of Parliament from the Democratic Unionist Party, a small, hardline right-wing party of Northern Irish Protestants, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
That coalition is proving to be a massive pain in the arse. Northern Ireland, home to 1.8 million people, is part of the United Kingdom, but the Irish Republic, with which Northern Ireland shares an island, is very much not part of the United Kingdom and is part of the EU. That raised the horrible prospect of reinstating a hard border between Northern Ireland and Regular Ireland for the first time since The Troubles.
Because May’s majority in Parliament depends on these DUP fellas, whose entire political reason to live is keeping Northern Ireland part of the UK (and also being shitheads about abortion and marriage equality), any deal she strikes with the EU must be approved by them, too.
The existence of this single market is made possible by all the EU member states adhering to a EU-wide regulatory framework. Those regulations formed part of the grumbling objection to the EU in the pre-Brexit years; a popular myth among UKIP types was that the EU banned the sale of “bendy bananas.” (They didn’t, but it sounded funny and a bit rude, so lots of red-faced reactionary anti-EU types latched onto it.)
The question facing the UK is how it extricates itself from that market, as well as how movement between the UK and EU will work and also a bunch of other stuff and oh my god this whole thing is so stupid. In January, May announced that Britain would not try to stay in the single market, a so-called “hard Brexit.” That means Northern Ireland, too.
So the question is how the Irish Republic can stay in the EU, single market and all, and Northern Ireland can leave, while avoiding having a hard border to check everyone’s suitcases for bendy bananas every time they pop between Armagh and Carrickmacross, and while keeping trade flowing easily between the UK and Ireland.
On Monday, May, Juncker, and the Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar had agreed that the way forward was “regulatory alignment,” a boring term for keeping the rules in line with the EU’s after Brexit, meaning trade can keep happening because everyone is following the same rules about customs and tariffs and whether you can make sausages out of cats’ bums or not. The deal would have kept Northern Ireland in line with the EU but not the rest of the UK.
But disaster struck Monday night, when an agreement on these principles reached by May and European commission president Claude Juncker was rejected by the DUP. Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, said any move “which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom” was unacceptable.
This was a nightmare for May, who has for months been dealing with chaos in her party and a general impression that her government does not have its shit together. Juncker warned that May only had 48 hours to figure it out. If she failed, it would be yet another colossal fuckup and evidence that she was not capable of stewarding the nation through this difficult time. There were dramatic—well, dramatic by British standards—scenes, where May had to leave a meeting with Juncker early to take a phone call with Foster.
Late on Thursday, a deal was reached with all parties. The final agreement says that if a later trade deal isn’t reached by the talks, the whole UK, not just Northern Ireland, will maintain “full alignment” with elements of the single market and customs rules.
As you’d expect, the agreement itself is vague. The victory here is in delaying a tough fight over the specifics while appeasing the DUP and the Irish, not in actually, like, figuring any of this out.
But now that a deal has been reached, the talks can move forward. Which is good news for Theresa May—it’s either a path forward to having a leadership remembered for anything other than shooting herself in the foot, or a stay of execution. Brexit is happening in 2019, and if Britain can’t get a deal with the EU to retain trade privileges and rights for its citizens in the EU—the worst-cast scenario known as a “no deal Brexit”—there will likely be absolute chaos.
Still, chin up, Theresa. Labour beat the Tories by eight points in a recent poll; by 2019, this might not be your problem anymore.