Last week’s description, by European Council president, Donald Tusk, of the conclusion reached by British prime minister Theresa May and her divided cabinet on how they see Britain’s post-Brexit trading relationship with the EU as “pure illusion” sounded like an expression of deepening exasperation by a loving uncle losing his last slivers of patience with a nephew, unable, or wilfully unwilling, to accept the limited choices offered by the world around them.
Mr Tusk’s frustration that May’s inner cabinet cling to have-your-cake-and-eat-it ambitions suggests that meaningful negotiations remain, like a solution to the Irish border impasse, a considerable distance away. It seems incredible that May’s cabinet should, despite clarification after clarification, that trading privileges are indivisible from legal responsibilities, pursue this á la carte fantasy. It is not only incredible, it is dangerous too.
Yesterday’s declaration from the British Labour Party that it wants to stay in the customs union, according to senior party figure Keir Starmer, is, from an Irish perspective, welcome. Mr Starmer, sounding a note of reality, missing from the debate, said Labour had “long championed being in a customs union... Obviously, it’s the only way realistically to get tariff-free access... and nobody can answer the question how you keep your commitment to no hard border in Northern Ireland without a customs union.”
It is part of the Brexit tragedy that this one sentence carries more understanding of the border issue than almost anything coming from Brextremists utterly indifferent to the consequences of their actions for anyone other than themselves. Suggestions from Tory zealots — and one Irish-born Labour voice who should know better, Kate Hoey — that the Belfast Agreement is an aspirational option to be sidestepped as suits, reveals a disdain, a hubris that has become a toxic influence in these phoney-war negotiations.
It seems fair to suggest that the situation in Stormont would not be so very disappointing, so laden with threat, if the DUP had not built a new kind of self-confidence their priceless House of Commons votes bestows — even if they depend on their all-too-willing danse macabre partners Sinn Féin to sustain the contrived deadlock.
Labour’s declaration comes after more than 80 senior party members signed a statement warning party leader Jeremy Corbyn that key policies would be unaffordable if the United Kingdom leaves the single market. The statement, days before Mr Corbyn is to make a keynote Brexit speech, exposed Labour’s divisions on how to proceed. A letter signed by 37 MPs, 12 peers and union leaders demanded the party commits to securing access to the single market by remaining part of the European Economic Area.
It seems unlikely that Mrs May’s government will have a long or happy life. It seems possible to imagine that, one way or another, Labour will take power and then Brexit will be an entirely different project. Timing seems the only issue. Whether Mr Tusk’s patience, and the patience of others, can reach that far also remains to be seen.