The EU would apparently prefer the UK to fall into no deal rather than compromising on the Northern Ireland backstop, writes Simon Witney. The stand-off could end if the EU were prepared to accept a second-best alternative.

The European Union’s position in the Brexit negotiations, if one takes it at face value, is self-evidently irrational. It is remarkable that this fact has been largely overlooked in the recent public discourse, and even more remarkable that there now appears to be almost no pressure on the EU to compromise.

The EU’s position appears to be that it would rather the UK left without concluding a Withdrawal Agreement than to reopen any aspect of the current text, including the Northern Ireland backstop. As often repeated, that backstop would ensure that there will never be a hard border between the north and south of the island of Ireland. But if the negotiators were to revisit that part of the Agreement so that, for example, a lengthy transitional period guaranteed no border for several years and all parties were legally committed to working towards a “no-border” solution in the meantime, the revised deal would surely pass the UK Parliament.

Jean-Claude Juncker in 2017. Photo: European Council via a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

So the logical effect of the EU’s position is that they would prefer a border in the coming months (a requirement of EU law and necessary to protect the integrity of the single market) than the much softer alternative that is on offer – not an absolute guarantee, but a good chance of no border ever, and plenty of time to plan for and mitigate the impact should some border checks ultimately be required. To choose no deal over that alternative would be very difficult to understand. And yet, some European leaders even say they expect no deal, while refusing to countenance any suggestion that they could alleviate the problems that this would create in Ireland by seeking a second-best alternative to the backstop.

Irrationality is not the most likely explanation, of course. No doubt the EU negotiators held the view, which is still likely to prove to be correct, that the UK would eventually accept the backstop, or choose some alternative course, rather than leaving without a deal. That the UK has not yet done either is highly regrettable, and the largest share of the responsibility for the current position must lie with the British government and the UK Parliament.

But given where we are, it is very surprising that there is not now more pressure on the EU side to compromise, which would clearly be in its own best interests, rather than allowing Europe to come so perilously close to a no deal outcome. One might expect that pressure to come from all sides – but particularly from Ireland, for whom the stakes seem especially high.

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Note: This article first appeared on our sister site, LSE Brexit. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the author

Simon Witney – LSE
Simon Witney is a Visiting Professor in Practice in the Department of Law, LSE.

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