Brexit Diaries 20: Theresa May has to square the Irish circle

Lonely UK Prime Minister Theresa May has no clothes, a former political rival speaks his mind and the hour of historical revenge finally arrives for the Irish.

Following Monday's latest Brexit episode, the twists and turns of which put every Netflix series to shame, things can no longer continue as they had. Special events require special measures, and for that reason a recent tweet from Ed Miliband deserves special attention. He can certainly be suspected of sour grapes after having blown a seemingly impossible-to-lose 2015 election against conservative incumbent David Cameron; who in turn led the United Kingdom into a Brexit referendum two months later. As we all know, Cameron went down in flames as a result, and left Downing Street in disgrace. And that is why Theresa May is now in power, and why Miliband now feels compelled to tweet, because it is all connected.

That is something that simply must be said after the ridiculous debacle that took place at the moment in which Brexit was almost within reach — almost. Because that was precisely the moment at which the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster rang up Theresa May and the prime minister folded up like a cheap umbrella. Can anyone imagine a more embarrassing situation than being dressed down by a provincial Unionist extremist in the middle of lunch with the president of the European Commission? By the head of a Northern Ireland political sect that insists upon special rules for abortion and same-sex marriage, but cries lese-majeste at the thought of open borders with the Republic of Ireland — and is now dictating the terms for Brexit to London? It defies belief that this swindler, whose allegiance Theresa May bought for a billion pounds, and who represents less than 3 percent of the British population, could now torpedo Brexit at the last second over the Irish question.

As much as one may gloat about Theresa May, this is out of line.

Ireland is at the long end of the Brexit lever

But for the Irish, a long held dream has finally come true, one they have held since at least the 13th century. Or at least since the first British occupiers trampled the island and its people. Suddenly, Dublin is no longer an underdog but rather in the splendid position of being the tail that wags the British bulldog, with the collective strength of the entire EU at its back.

Politics | 05.12.2017
Irland Taoiseach Leo Varadkar und Donald Tusk in Dublin

Brexit has left European Council President Donald Tusk (right) and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar laughing

And what sweet irony the Irish must now sense in being witness to the pride that Britain exhibited before its fall. Should the UK trip over the Irish question, of all things, in their rush to Brexit, it would be an act of enormous historical gratification. The greatest of all time. And all of their Irish ancestors, who were forced to flee their beloved homeland due to famine, which everyone knows was brought about by the British, would finally have some very belated satisfaction.

That, by the way, was the main miscalculation made by Brexit organizers: They underestimated the degree to which everything is connected. And that the sins of their ancestors, for instance, could be avenged by the descendants of their victims. Furthermore, it would seem that they did not have a command of basic arithmetic skills: 27, it turns out, is more than one.

The prime minister has no clothes

Theresa May wore a patterned skirt and a black blazer to Brussels on Monday. Yet politically, she stood naked after her meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Journalists pushed forward into the briefing room and pointed, saying: Look, she doesn't have anything, not even the last shred of her already limited power. Suddenly, everyone saw the prime minister standing there exposed as a pitiful and woeful figure. And that is exactly how her colleagues at the Brussels summit saw her as well, especially when she was forced to slink away from the group dinner before dessert arrived because the others wanted to discuss Brexit amongst themselves.

A politician is also left out in the cold when even her own party refuses to support her. She who allowed a few hardliners to force her into policies that have greatly damaged her country's economy and destroyed its international standing. And as the British have a very long history, May now faces the threat of taking her place in the ancestral portrait gallery of British prime ministers alongside good-for-nothing 18th century aristocrats who only ascended to power because no one else wanted the position.

UK - Protest gegen Brexit

May and her fellow Conservative leaders are tied to the Brexit monster

Brexit saved?

The 18th century's honorable representative in today's House of Commons, known by the name Jacob Rees-Mogg, recently exclaimed: "Britain should be thanking the DUP for saving Brexit!" He is a man with old-fashioned suits and just as old-fashioned opinions. Indeed, he is a throwback to the days in which a duke could hold his servants in check by simply raising an eyebrow. This man is occasionally touted as a potential replacement for Theresa May. It is madness, but there is a method to it.

Or, Brexit delayed?

The opposition Labour party's Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Keir Starmer, called Theresa May's negotiating failure in Brussels an "embarrassment." Starmer, generally known as a rather dry barrister, now seems to have found new rhetorical skills, saying May's team "have given a new meaning to the phrase coalition of chaos." The parliamentarian also called for the UK to delay Brexit by pushing back the March 29, 2019 date. Officials in Brussels will likely throw up their hands in horror at the suggestion. It was not Theresa May who set the two-year deadline, rather it is anchored in the Treaty of Lisbon — and it will not be changed to accommodate the British. The only possibility to stop things at this point would be for May to revoke the UK's intention to leave the EU as stated in its original triggering of negotiations by invoking article 50. The result of such a step would be "no Brexit." That would save all parties involved a lot of time and a lot of money. An ingenious idea indeed.

Related Subjects

Or, Brexit at the finish line?

Theresa May explained that only "a small number of outstanding issues" are holding up a Brexit agreement. Though they may be few, they are significant.


Two phases

EU leaders agreed to negotiating guidelines during a summit in April 2017 that divided the divorce talks into two phases. Phase I, in which both sides aimed to settle the basic terms of Britain's departure, started in July and ended with an agreement on "sufficient progress" in December. Officials are now holding Phase II negotiations on the post-Brexit relationship between Britain and the EU.


The "Brexit Bill"

London agreed to a formula for calculating what it owes in its "divorce bill" to the EU in early December after months of haggling by British officials. The current EU budget expires in 2022 and EU officials have said the divorce bill will cover financial obligations Britain had committed to before triggering article 50. The final bill will reportedly total around £50 billion (€67 billion).


Citizens' rights

Both sides agreed in early December that the 3 million EU citizens currently in Britain and the 1.1 million British citizens in the EU keep their residency rights after Brexit. British courts will have immediate jurisdiction over EU citizens living in Britain. But the EU's highest court, the ECJ, can hear cases until 2027 if British judges refer unclear cases to them.


The Irish border

Britain and the EU also agreed in December that no border checks between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would return post-Brexit. How feasible the commitment will be is unclear, as Britain's commitment to leaving the EU Single Market and Customs Union makes it difficult to avoid customs checks at the Irish border.


Transition period

Theresa May envisages a two-year transition period after March 2019. Both sides still have to hash out the details of the transition period in Phase II, including the exact end-date, whether new EU laws passed during the period will apply to Britain, and whether Britain can negotiate its own free trade deals. British officials hope to agree on the terms of the transition by March 2018.



May has repeatedly said Britain will leave the European Single Market and the EU Customs Union. Leaving both could disrupt British-EU trade, but allow Britain to negotiate its own free trade deals and restrict EU migration — key demands by pro-Brexit politicians. London has said it wants to negotiate a new EU-UK trade deal during Phase II to minimize trade disruption before March 2019.



Britain has also vowed to restrict EU migration into Britain after Brexit. However, some British lawmakers are wary that a sharp drop in immigration could lead to shortfalls in key sectors, including health, social care and construction. The EU has warned that Single Market access is out of the question if London decides to restrict the ability of its citizens to live and work in Britain.



Recent terror attacks across Europe including a string in Britain underline both sides' support for continued security cooperation after March 2019. But access to EU institutions such as Europol and programs such as the European Arrest Warrant require compliance with EU laws. Whether Britain will still be compliant after it leaves is unclear.