Whatever else, Theresa May has spent the last year or so learning how to put a brave face on the most calamitous events in recent British political history – some her fault, some not.
Yesterday, in the convivial company of EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the brave face was on display once again, the Prime Minster sounding as upbeat as she could be about the failure – there is no other word for it – of the latest round of talks. In this she was abetted by the silken rhetoric of Mr Juncker, something of a charmer over the lunch table by all accounts, but, if anything, Mr Juncker only made matters worse when the let slip that there were “two or three” issues still open for further negotiation and “consultation” – which is one or two more than might have been assumed. In other words the latest iteration of the historic “Irish Question” is not the only sticking point, as appeared from some of the more positive mood music emanating from Brussels and London in recent days.
Some of this, in fairness, is not Ms May’s fault, and not simply because she was once, in a lost world far away, a Remainer, albeit a highly reluctant one during the EU referendum. It is simply that, after around 18 months of wrangling, the finest diplomatic, political and economic minds in Europe have not been able to solve the insoluble – how Northern Ireland can be outside the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, but have no economic border with Ireland.
In a thoughtful and creative position paper in the summer the British Government attempted to solve the problem by suggesting that new technologies could be used to remove most of the difficulties. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern suggested a blind eye could be turned to small-scale movements of goods and people strictly outside of the letter of Brexit. The Irish government suggested, successively, an economic border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (and thus the EU). A new wheeze, of “regulatory convergence” between Ireland and the EU on the one side, and Northern Ireland on the other, was swiftly agreed by the British government, and just as rapidly spat out by Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionists.
So this failure to settle the economic status of Northern Ireland by giving it special treatment suggests that the problem is so intractable as to represent a significant obstacle to Brexit in its own right – along with still unresolved issues about the rights of…