The UK is due to leave the European Union in just 22 days’ time and yet the prospect of doing so with a deal looks as far away as ever after an extraordinary war of words that has exposed an almost unbridgeable gulf. At issue, as it has been all along, is the status of Northern Ireland. Whereas the British government considers the province to be an integral part of the UK, the EU regard it as part of greater Ireland.
Their view is that any agreement about its future status must be acceptable to Dublin. They cite the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement to back up their case along with the fact that a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain. If anyone was still unclear about this it was spelled out by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, in a conversation with Boris Johnson. Essentially, she said if the UK wanted a deal it must agree that Northern Ireland, to all intents and purposes, remains inside the EU as part of its single market and customs union.
This means one of two things. Either we can only leave the EU by breaking up our country; or we can never leave save on terms dictated by Brussels. Neither of these are acceptable to any government. Yet in the Commons, Labour fulminated against the Prime Minister, accusing him of setting impossible terms in the expectation of collapsing the talks. But this is not the case.
Mr Johnson has agreed that there should be a single market in goods on the island of Ireland, which is a compromise from his earlier position, and this has even been accepted by the Democratic Unionist Party, which had hitherto opposed such a move.
Mr Johnson has compromised but the EU wants him to go further and accept that Northern Ireland should stay in the Customs Union. Is Labour supporting that proposal. We hear a lot of crinkly-browed bleating from Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit Secretary, about what is unacceptable with little in the way of constructive proposals in the interests of the country.
If there is a party wanting to crash the negotiations it is Labour because they see political advantage in doing so. It is to be expected that in the final stages of such fraught negotiations positions appear to harden ahead of critical talks. Unless they have broken down irretrievably, there is still time to resolve this impasse provided the EU is willing to accept that the UK cannot be browbeaten into breaking up its country in order to exercise a democratic choice.