Theresa May To Head To Brussels To Try To Renegotiate Brexit Deal

Jan 31, 2019
Originally published on January 31, 2019 7:10 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to head to Brussels to try and renegotiate her Brexit withdrawal agreement with the European Union. Some of the sharpest opposition to her plan comes from the country which would be most affected, Ireland, which, as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, is in a very difficult position.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: On Tuesday night, the U.K. Parliament voted to try to reopen the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Irish officials were quick to quash that idea. Here's Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney speaking to the Irish broadcaster RTE.

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SIMON COVENEY: The EU position and the Irish position is clear. It took two years to put that negotiated withdrawal agreement together. It's not going to be reopened now.

LANGFITT: The sticking point, as always, is how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. The European Union and Ireland, which is a member, insist the U.K. remain in a customs arrangement with the EU until they can find a solution. But the British Parliament has balked, fearing the U.K. could get stuck inside such an arrangement for years. Speaking before the European Parliament yesterday, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, warned that the U.K.'s bid to renegotiate was unwise.

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JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER: (Through interpreter) Allow me to tell you very clearly that yesterday's vote has further increased the risk of a disorderly exit of the United Kingdom.

LANGFITT: Which would damage both the British and Irish economies. The U.K. is one of Ireland's top trading partners. If the U.K. crashes out of the EU with no deal at the end of March, Irish officials say it could cost their economy 1.5 percent in GDP growth. Simon Coveney said the threat of a mutually damaging outcome puts Ireland in an odd position.

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COVENEY: That's like saying, you know, in a negotiation, well, either you give me what I want, or I'm jumping out the window.

LANGFITT: The reaction in Dublin to the recent turn of events?

BEN TONRA: Stunned bemusement, I think, is probably the best response.

LANGFITT: Ben Tonra is a professor of international relations at University College Dublin and runs the Institute for British-Irish Studies. He says the willingness of Prime Minister May and more than 300 members of Parliament to vote against a deal her own government negotiated shows a lack of realism.

TONRA: There's a large proportion of the British political establishment that really has not yet come to terms with the implications of what Brexit means and the reality that you cannot withdraw from the European Union without costs.

LANGFITT: The EU has backed Ireland's position on the border. Tonra says that's partly due to the fact that the Irish government began strategizing before the Brexit referendum in 2016 and then snapped into action after U.K. voters passed it.

TONRA: Ireland entered into a very assiduous and very well-planned-out campaign, amongst all 26 member states, basically setting out what was for Ireland its existential interest in this issue.

LANGFITT: The fear that a hard border would partition the island once again and could trigger a return to political violence in Northern Ireland. That argument had natural appeal to the EU, which was created in part to prevent conflict on the continent.

TONRA: Talking about peace in Europe has much greater and more powerful resonance than the equivalent British demand, which was for free trade and our rights and our money.

LANGFITT: But not everyone in Dublin thinks the Irish government has played the Brexit border issue wisely. Dan O'Brien is chief economist of the Institute of International and European Affairs, a think tank. He thinks Ireland and the EU have driven too hard a bargain, insisting that Northern Ireland might in certain circumstances have to stay aligned to some rules in the EU's single market, which many British lawmakers say would violate the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.

DAN O'BRIEN: That was a tactical error. In any negotiation, if you put something on the table that you know the other side won't be able to accept, you end up increasing the risk that everyone will walk away from the negotiation with no deal.

LANGFITT: O'Brien says Ireland and the EU have taken a position that actually makes the worst-case scenario for all parties more likely.

O'BRIEN: I thought it increased the risk of a no-deal Brexit, which would ultimately bring about a hard border, damage relations between Ireland and Britain, cause much greater economic damage.

LANGFITT: And with less than 60 days to go before the U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU, O'Brien says such an outcome seems frighteningly real. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.