The Irish Border
The creation of this border caused a bloody civil war in Ireland, shortly after the creation of the independent state in 1922-23, and political parties are united in their determination to avoid reigniting this issue. In addition, the Good Friday Agreement, which underpins the end of the Troubles in N. Ireland, is heavily predicated on the ending of border controls, the dismantling of British army border watch towers, and the blurring of many distinctions north and south made possible by both being part of the EU.
N. Ireland voted to remain within the EU by 56%-44% and yet the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has actively pursued it's policy of supporting Brexit in tandem with a Conservative Party government in Westminster which is dependent on the DUP for it's parliamentary majority. Despite the fact that the DUP supports different laws in N. Ireland on agricultural products, abortion and same sex marriages, it is absolutely opposed to Brexit creating any differences in market regulation between N. Ireland and Britain which might give rise to a need for customs controls "in the Irish Sea" between N. Ireland and British seaports and airports and claims to also oppose a hard border within Ireland.
This creates a logical impossibility if the UK is going to leave the Single Market and Customs Union. There then has to be a customs border somewhere between the EU and UK to enforce any differences in tariff rates or quality regulations. In order to move the negotiations forward, the EU and UK agreed a "backstop" proposal in December 2017 whereby, in the absence of any other solution for the Border, Northern Ireland would effectively remain within the EU customs union preventing the need for customs posts at the Irish border.
When the DUP realised this would require a customs border in the Irish Sea, Theresa May claimed that all of the UK could negotiate "access to" to Single Market and Customs Union circumventing the need for a customs border either in Ireland or the Irish sea. When the EU insisted that full access to either was possible only if the UK recognised the four freedoms", maintained "regulatory alignment", and didn't negotiate any separate trade deals with third parties, the Brexiteers in the Tory party revolted. For the EU this was "trying to have their cake and eat it" and for Brexiters, those requirements would mean "Brexit in name only".
Theresa May then resiled from the backstop proposal and claimed that the problems of a hard border could be resolved through a combination of new technology, "trusted trader" schemes, and the UK collecting tariffs on behalf of the EU (maximum facilitation) all of which were dismissed as impossibly complex and impracticable by the EU side. No sooner had the white paper outlining some of these proposals been published, important elements of it where rejected by a Brexiteer led revolt in the Commons in any case.
Ireland, supported by the EU27, has insisted that this issue must be resolved before substantive trade negotiations take place whereas the British negotiation position has been that the negotiation of an EU/UK FTA is what will resolve these problems. EU negotiators are concerned that the UK might try to use the N. Ireland situation as a means to gain access to the EU Customs Union and Single Market by the back door.
An alternative resolution?
But is there another way of resolving this problem? Now that the UK and EU have agreed a transition period from the 29th, March 2019 to end 2020, could both the trade and border issues be "kicked down the road again" and finalised during that period? The Brexit deal itself would avoid emotive issues like the border and access to markets altogether, and focus on relatively less contentious issues like the aircraft landing rights, the Medicines Agency, the Galileo project, and security cooperation. If some items cannot be agreed now, can the deal be stripped down to include only those items that require immediate agreement and where agreement is possible?
Any deal negotiated after the UK leaves the EU on the 29th. March 2019 requires the unanimous agreement of the EU27, so Ireland can be assured that any final deal will not ride roughshod over it's vital national interest in peace and stability on the island. The UK is also spared the prospect of a "no-deal" scenario whereby planes cannot land on EU soil, and food and medicines shortages are threatened.
But one other vital aspect of the political situation may change: by 2020, a new government, not dependent on the DUP may take power in the UK. No one really thinks that N. Ireland matters all that much in British thinking. A border in the Irish sea is of marginal concern to all parties except the DUP. The question is, how can the DUP be removed from it's current, pivotal position. The answer to that question may not be long in coming...
Suppose Theresa May and Olly Robins negotiate a bare- bones Brexit agreement by October 2018. They have three months to do so, and Barnier has already said such a deal is 80% agreed. Although hyped as a great achievement, it quickly comes clear that it doesn't guarantee "friction free" access to the single market after the end of the transition period. All the difficult discussions have been postponed.
The Brexiteers are concerned that the UK is getting very little for it's 40 Billion Brexit exit payment - and losing a lot of negotiating leverage for the future. Remainers are appalled that the deal is so obviously less advantageous than full membership. Corbyn whips his MP's to vote against because he doesn't want to be held responsible for the outcome of the negotiations ("a bad deal for Britain") and wants a general election so that a Labour government can negotiate "a better deal". The SNP won't support anything unless they get another referendum on Scottish independence.
May loses the Commons vote on the deal and calls a general election with Labour support. Corbyn promises to negotiate a better deal, and, in order to unite his party behind him, promises a second referendum on the outcome of the negotiations. From an EU perspective, it doesn't much matter who wins the election provided the DUP don't hold the balance of power. The DUP's position in N. Ireland is in any case somewhat under threat because of various scandals and their pursuit of an unpopular Brexit policy.
If Theresa May wins, her policy is vindicated and Brexit will proceed on the basis of the minimal deal she negotiated in October. A free trade agreement is negotiated during the transition period based on the Canada and Japan FTAs and which effectively retains N. Ireland within the customs union and single market. The DUP is sold down the river and a customs border is set up at mainland Europe, Irish, N. Ireland and British air and sea ports. No one outside Ireland cares that there is no customs border on the land border.
A Corbyn Victory?
However, what if the Commons divisions are reflected in the British electorate? Theresa May has to campaign with almost half of the Conservative party briefing against her and ridiculing her agreement. Farage becomes leader of a resurgent UKIP; AGAIN. Voters in Scotland and N. Ireland vote even more decisively against an English dominated Brexit project. Many Brexit supporting voters are disillusioned and stay at home.
Corbyn wins a majority, perhaps with SNP and Lib Dem support. He forms a government promising to negotiate a better deal with Brussels and a referendum on the outcome (as demanded by the Lib Dems), together with one on Scottish independence as demanded by the SNP. He arrives gung-ho in Brussels only to find that Brussels has lost interest. They have negotiated a deal to their satisfaction and will only consider a revision if it involves major changes such as the UK remaining in the Customs Union and/or Single Market with all the attendant requirements to respect the four freedoms, the regularity environment and restrictions on negotiating separate trade deals. Corbyn baulks at the compromises required.
Corbyn tries to go over Brussel's heads, but finds very little support from mostly centre right and far right governments. The deal Theresa May negotiated is effectively a case of take it or leave it - its the UK's choice. Corbyn's problem is that he, and the UK electorate, have effectively rejected Theresa May's deal, and so there are only two options to put to the people in a referendum - a No deal Brexit or a withdrawal of A50.
Sweetening the deal
In order to sweeten the pill the EU offers to talk about what reforms Corbyn would want in order to support a Remain vote in the referendum. These reforms can't be all that radical because there simply isn't time for a Treaty change, and far right governments would find much of Corbyn's agenda objectionable in any case.
But the EU Commission manages to draw up an impressive looking agenda for change which includes many things it and more centrist governments like Merkel and Macron would have wanted to do anyway. The fact that Corbyn has never really articulated a detailed agenda for EU reform gives him quite a bit of leeway to support impressive sounding proposals which may or may not change all that much on the ground.
The final proposals include a larger EU budget, greater EU regional, social, structural and cohesion funds; common industrial and environmental policies and much more cooperation on immigration, security, consumer protection, corporate taxation, anti-monopoly competition laws, education and healthcare. Corbyn can face the electorate saying he has negotiated the creation of a much more progressive EU and is giving the electorate a clear choice between the clean "no deal" Brexit beloved of the Brexiteers and continued full membership of a reformed EU.
Some committed leavers would still undoubtedly vote leave, but many more, particularly on the left, could applaud the fact that Corbyn has negotiated a better deal for Britain. Businesses will breath a sigh of relief, and even the cynics could argue that the A50 notification has proved a clever and successful ruse to extract more concessions from the EU. All will forget that much of what the EU offered might have been available anyway if only successive Conservative governments had asked.
EU immigration has been reducing rapidly in any case and Corbyn promises to address many of the poverty, inequality and public service issues created by austerity and which were another factor contributing to the original Brexit vote. He promises an industrial policy and much more regional and infrastructural investment. The UK votes to remain by a much more decisive margin than the original 52:48 Brexit vote and the issue is put to bed for another generation.
Brexit soon becomes like a bad dream best forgotten and not mentioned in polite society.