Whereas the United Kingdom would propose to undermine the EU's single market, the European Union would factually divide the U.K. into two. Neither EU Council President Donald Tusk nor British Prime Minister Theresa May minced their words during and after an informal gathering of EU leaders held last week in Salzburg.
An undertaking as complex as Brexit was always destined to be something between mission impossible and a Catch 22 – situation; the latter because in order to leave the European Union you first had to reaffirm its very existence and in order to let the U.K. depart, Brussels had to acknowledge the U.K.'s potential and future stand-alone impacts; the former because simply waving goodbye and hoping for the best possible outcome was a nonstarter anyways both ways as far too much – i.e. the future and very existence of the EU, and the future and very existence of the U.K. – are at stake if viewed from Brussels or London.
Hence the perfect compromise, an amicable divorce, a win-win situation was, even if originally intended, a rather far-fetched hypothesis. And with the still not amended deadline of March 2019 looming dangerously on the negotiators' horizon there had been hoping that that particular high-level gathering could clear the remaining roadblocks – it did not.
EU laws through the backdoor
The British prime minister flew back to Britain arriving amidst rather frank headlines. The Guardian reported on Sept. 21 about that fateful return by writing "Humiliation and disaster – how the U.K.'s press covered May's Salzburg ordeal." Many of Friday's front pages were unforgiving in their verdict on the prime minister, while others blamed EU "mobsters." The Times had mentioned the word "humiliation" in its headline the day after Salzburg, too.
Are those headlines a reflection of the dissatisfaction about how the prime minister handles Brexit or a mirror image of the dissatisfaction with the fact that Brexit happens in the first place? Or were those headlines regardless of being in favor or against the prime minister's stance an anti-EU sentiment in principle, in the sense of we were humiliated by Brussels and should speak up against it no matter what?
Theresa May did not wait for long to address her electorate and the media by declaring "I will never agree to it" should the EU force the United Kingdom to accept a de facto split between Northern Ireland and the mainland, or fails to respect the outcome of the referendum as such.
She went further by saying that both of the most recent EU proposals detailing the future economic relationship between the two sides were unacceptable. On the one hand, there would be the idea to anchor the U.K. in the European Economic Area as well as in parts of the customs union resulting in that Britain would still be bound by many, if not most of the EU's rules in these vital domains. On the other hand, there was the suggestion to go for a basic free trade agreement yet with Northern Ireland staying in large parts of the single market as well as the customs union and by doing so the EU says a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could be avoided.
The second proposal however was viewed by London as proposing a de facto division of today's United Kingdom. As it seems any third way suggestions London had prepared as early as July 7 were not even considered debatable, an affront of quite some proportions. Those suggestions labelled as "Chequers," because of the name of the country estate of the prime minister in which they were discussed, asked for a free trade agreement and no hard border; the EU now accuses London of cherry picking.
One must hold back for a moment and recall the magnitude of the historical 1998 Good Friday Agreement which was the beginning of peace on a previously very volatile island. Unionists and Republicans started to cooperate with a view to whether Northern Ireland should remain a part of the United Kingdom or become a part of the Republic of Ireland; a peaceful solution was sought first and foremost. At the same time it tremendously changed for the better, relations between the peoples of the North and the Republic, respectively.
The understandable anger currently voiced from London, and to a large extent Northern Ireland, too, was perfectly summed up in the Northern Ireland Assembly Brexit Brief Newsletter of September 2018. Therein European Commission chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was quoted from what he had said on July 17 speaking to the House of Lords' EU Committee, "We made a proposal exceptionally to include Northern Ireland in our customs territory to avoid a hard border and to ask, as far as necessary, for a certain amount of regulatory alignment."
In other words: the EU's very own chief negotiator basically demands from London if they want to avoid a hard Brexit resulting in a border to swallow the bitter pill that Northern Ireland stays within the EU's customs union agreement and de facto becomes and stays as a part of the EU thus dividing the United Kingdom.
The oft-referred to "backstop" EU proposal to keep Northern Ireland in the EU system, in the case of a no-deal Brexit until agreement would be reached, if ever, is rather understandably, totally unacceptable to London.
Brussels is worried about the vote
It was never the fact that the United Kingdom decided to part ways with the European Union which worried Brussels' leaders and technocrats the most. More or less shrugged off as typically British, as everything else London ever proposed, it was seen basically as a problem for Britain and not for the EU. What caused the panic buttons to be pressed in Brussels and a fair number of European capitals were the anticipated spill-over effects further complicated by a steady rise of far-right and populist movements all over Europe, often EU-skeptical.
In this context and if Brussels is now seen as giving in to London, copycats might appear and have a go at it. Could Sweden hold a Swexit vote? Would Hungary go for its own version? Are there perhaps populist trends and tendencies in major EU player's houses so to speak, too, think the unthinkable and mention perhaps Berlin or Paris, or not so much surprisingly, perhaps Spain, too?
The only way for today's EU to survive is to show London a cold, perhaps even a hard shoulder if this figurative speech add-on is acceptable for the purpose of writing this article.
Who plays Brexit roulette?
Brussels knows that a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would put at risk the Good Friday Agreement besides leaving London no choice but to opt for a no-deal Brexit. Even if this in turn would result in whatever form of new border between both parts it would have been Brussels, not London who is to blame for it.
Yet humiliating the British government further, perhaps hoping for regime change and early elections is a nonstarter. Besides, should the very unexpected happen and the opposition Labour Party come to power in such an early vote, chances are that there would be a second referendum which would in all likelihood lead to an even bigger "leave" majority. It will only reinforce the view in the ordinary folk that Brussels is a superstate, a quasi-authoritarian institution intent on causing harm, not welfare.
The best way out would be treating each negotiating party with the required respect and trust and try and sort out things by November of this year to avoid a no-deal situation. After Salzburg it appears that this "respect ball" is firmly in the EU's court for the time being.
* Political analyst, journalist