Brexit is in a mess, but not irretrievably

Want to know where we really are on Brexit? In  three words, in a mess. Can we get out of it?   Possibly at the eleventh hour, 10 pm on Friday 19 March 2019, just like the Good Friday Agreement in fact. Nothing  is agreed until everything is agreed. As so often – like the Stormont standoff – the politics look more difficult than the rational solutions.

The Irish and British prime ministers profess themselves in the dark about  each others’ proposals ( for Irish read EU)


If there is an alternative proposal from the UK side, we would like to see it. It is 18-months since the referendum, it is ten years since people started agitating for a referendum,” the Taoiseach said. “They must, at this stage, have a counter proposal.”


Theresa May told a private meeting of business leaders that she still has no idea what European leaders expected her to offer in order to move the talks on to trade and transition at next month’s European summit.

She also warned the group that she would not waste “political capital” at home by making concessions — on issues such as a financial settlement, the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and the future of the Irish border — which could be rejected at the eleventh hour as not good enough. That would risk weakening the prime minister’s authority at home further.

The only clear point about the border is deadlock.  This suggests the deadline for making “ sufficient progress” on free movement, payment of £60 billion and border proposals will shift from December to March

Word is that  £60 billion by March 2019 is doable if staggered over several years.

Meanwhile an EU paper on Northern Ireland  apparently sprung on him has been rejected by  Brexit Secretary David Davis

 to give Northern Ireland “Hong Kong-style” autonomy after Brexit. The move would bestow on the nation a status distinct from the rest of Britain as a World Trade Organisation member in its own right.

Mr Davis rejected the demand, which would effectively draw a border in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland, uniting it in the single market with the Irish Republic. “We recognise the need for specific solutions for the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland,” Mr Davis said. “But it cannot amount to creating a new border inside the UK.”

A senior British government source said Mr Davis regarded the EU’s new stance on Northern Ireland as “completely unacceptable”, adding that ministers “could not see how it was compatible with the Good Friday agreement”.

So now even the Brits  in a corner are invoking the  GFA.

But consider this…

Further British concessions on free movement could see the UK winning a parallel  arrangement to the single market and the customs union – but not remaining within them, you understand. The solution lies in Philip Hammond’s transition plan, if only  the beleaguered  Chancellor can get it through, as explained here in the Centre for European Reform’s website.   

How long would it take to get to that enviable position? Probably more than a couple  years of transitional arrangements. But this is anathema to the arch-Brexiteer backbenchers whom May has tried to appease by writing in the precise date and time for the exit into the legislation. With that powerful minority, plus a divided cabinet, lie the main reasons for the current mess.  Oh, and of course with the EU Commission, holding out hard for all that vulgar money.




Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London