If the leaders of the European Union were expecting a more conciliatory tone from the United Kingdom at yesterday’s heads of government meeting in Salzburg, Austria, they were sorely disappointed. Instead, the UK’s crisis-ridden prime minister issued something of an ultimatum to her fellow leaders, largely dismissing the EU’s attempts to meet Britain’s increasingly strident Brexit demands. According to press reports, Theresa May warned the gathering that the British would not accept any delay in their March 2019 departure from the bloc, that there would no second referendum on the issue and that the onus was on Brussels and not London to avoid a future no-deal breakup (or bust-up). One has to wonder if she actually used this line with her fellow leaders, as predicted by The Financial Times:
Theresa May will go over the head of EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Wednesday and appeal directly to fellow European leaders to cut her a Brexit deal that does not involve detaching Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Mrs May has become frustrated at Mr Barnier’s insistence that a so called “backstop” plan for Northern Ireland — intended to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland after Brexit — must leave the region operating under EU customs and single market rules.
“She will ask [EU leaders] to imagine if it was their country and there was a proposal to carve off a section of their own country,” said one ally of Mrs May.
I’m sure that Leo Varadkar and the rest of the Irish delegation would have no difficulty imagining that scenario. Talking of an ignorance of history – or even contemporary politics and geography – here’s Laura Kuenssberg and the BBC:
The response you get when you ask UK insiders whether they can move on their core beliefs about Ireland. “No, no, no!”.
And guess what, for more than two years now people involved in the Brexit process have been saying, ah, until we can find a way through on the question of Ireland well, we can’t be sure of anything.
And despite protestations from Brexiteers about how Ireland has come to dominate the talks, it has become whether they like it or not, the real life expression of Brexit’s bigger conundrums.
Arguably, Britain’s belief that Ireland is little more than a proprietorial British “question” is the biggest issue at the heart of Brexit. And this revanchist perception looks likely to worsen in the months and years ahead.