Is a “No Deal” Brexit Still Avoidable?

Why the Irish Border Remains a Stumbling Block for Negotiations

November 19, 2018British Prime Minister Theresa May replies to questions after speaking at the Confederation of British Industry's (CBI) annual conference in London, Britain, November 2018. Toby Melville / REUTERS

W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman’s comic history of England, 1066 and All That, talks about nineteenth-century British Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone’s efforts to solve the Irish Question—the puzzle of what to do with rebellious Ireland, which was then part of the United Kingdom. According to Sellar and Yeatman, every time that Gladstone got close to an answer the Irish changed the question. Over the last couple of days, a new Irish question has stymied Brexit negotiations between the United Kingdom and the EU: how to deal with the border between the Republic of Ireland, which will remain part of the EU, and Northern Ireland, which will not. This time it’s EU negotiators who keep on trying to come up with answers, while British politicians keep on changing the question.

At one point last week, it looked as though the EU and the United Kingdom had reached a provisional deal. British Prime Minister Theresa May brought the deal to her cabinet, which accepted it. But then, a few hours later, British ministers started to resign over the deal—including Dominic Raab, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, who had helped negotiate it, only to later apparently decide that it wasn’t nearly good enough. British politics is now in chaos. Most dread the prospect of a “no deal” Brexit, where the United Kingdom crashes out of the EU without any cushion, leading to massive economic and political instability. Yet no one has any good proposal for how to avoid it. There is no obvious deal that is both acceptable to the EU and likely to pass in the House of Commons.

Two and a half years ago, when British voters were contemplating the prospect of leaving the European Union, no one expected to be in this situation. Pro-Brexit politicians such as Boris Johnson promised British voters that they could have their cake and eat it too, leaving the bits of the EU that

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