Ideas — #MondayMemo: Will Brexit Break Down?


Theresa May will face her greatest test of the Brexit process as she seeks approval for a negotiated exit from the European Union.


British Prime Minister Theresa May has reached a deal with the European Union that will partially salvage Great Britain’s ties with the continent. This agreement’s sticking point is the preservation of a soft border between Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland in exchange for Britain remaining a part of the EU’s regulatory regime. However, many supporters of the Leave campaign perceive the deal as falling short of the “hard” Brexit they imagined; as a result, many of May’s own cabinet members have resigned in protest.

The biggest obstacle of these negotiations was the status of Northern Ireland. The British territory borders the Republic of Ireland, which is an independent state and a member of the European Union. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Catholic and Protestant factions within Northern Ireland engaged in violent conflict over the question of remaining part of Britain or unifying with the Republic of Ireland. This was ultimately pacified by an agreement in which Northern Ireland enjoys a lax border with Ireland while remaining in the United Kingdom.

A truly “hard” Brexit would require a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. All parties agree that this is undesirable. One alternative is for Northern Ireland to remain part of the EU to remain in sync with the rest of Ireland. However, this would effectively create a hard barrier between Northern Ireland and the British mainland. This would keep Northern Ireland at arm’s length from the rest of Britain and violate May’s promise to treat Northern Ireland the same as the rest of Britain.

The resolution reached by the EU and Britain resorts to making Northern Ireland a “backstop” in which goods imported into Northern Ireland will be subject to European Union regulations. To facilitate this, the U.K. also agreed to temporarily remain a part of the European Union customs union until a full trade agreement can be finalized. In order to preserve the open border in Ireland, May has opted for a gradual transition.

Meanwhile, this compromise has upset many in Parliament. The Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Irish party, rejects this deal as they perceive that Northern Ireland would be subject to different treatment than the rest of Britain. Hardline Brexiteers take issue with the temporary customs union and argue that this measure violates the spirit of the referendum. This sentiment is reflected by the resignations of Dominic Raab, the lead Brexit negotiator, and Esther McVey, the secretary for work and pensions.


The deep dissatisfaction with May’s deal for an orderly divorce is an existential threat to her leadership. If the vote for approval fails in Parliament, it would lead to a “vote of no confidence” which automatically triggers new elections under the Parliamentary system. These elections may replace Prime Minister May with Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party or another Tory who would likely be a more radically pro-Brexit figure.

In either case, a breakdown at this point would make reaching a negotiated exit before the end of March a near impossibility. This ought to be avoided at all costs as it would disrupt almost all facets of daily life for Brits and Europeans — including trade, air travel, and security. May should focus on advocating for the strengths of the deal, which include total British control of movement and an overall greater sense of sovereignty for the U.K. A second referendum is little more than a fantasy; members of Parliament should focus on making the best of their current situation, which means salvaging ties to one of the largest single economic blocs in the world.

Categories: Ideas

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