Well over three years after Britain announced it would split from the European Union, everything regarding Brexit is still in limbo and early hopes of an amicable split have turned into the reality of a bitter, battling divorce. Britain is scheduled to leave on Oct. 31, but much is still uncertain, especially in Ireland.
Here are some of the unresolved questions about Brexit as Britain’s political drama heads into its possible final weeks:
IF BRITAIN WANTS TO SPLIT SO BAD WHY IS IT TAKING SO LONG?
The impending divorce has actually split the U.K. to the core, making for vitriolic debates from household dinner tables to the House of Commons. That’s hardly an ideal situation for British negotiators facing an unusually united front among the 27 remaining EU nations. When previous British Prime Minister Theresa May finally came home with a Brexit compromise divorce deal, it was rejected, not once, but three times by the British Parliament.
So, the EU basically has a Brexit deal it respects but one that Britain has failed to pass.
HOW HAS BRITAIN’S NEW LEADER AFFECTED THE BREXIT TALKS?
To untangle the knot, in walks new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, using his tempestuous personality to try to change in days what Brexit negotiators have been working on for years. The changes that he is demanding are fundamental, especially on the relationship between the U.K’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. Reactions on the continent to Johnson’s proposals are increasingly negative, especially on Thursday.
WHAT CAN STILL BE DONE IN FOUR WEEKS?
Johnson says more than enough. The EU says not much.
On an issue like the border of Ireland, Johnson sought to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. Even if, unlikely as it is, progress is made to meet Johnson’s demands over the coming days, it would be next to impossible to produce it in legally binding texts in time. So on the continent, the most optimistic view is that Britain will need another Brexit extension past Oct. 31 to iron out those details. That, however, goes against Johnson’s promise to take the U.K. out of the EU by that date “do or die.”
WHAT IS SO DIFFICULT ABOUT THE IRISH BORDER?
The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is as big a stumbling block as one can find.
Neither side wants a hard border. The absence of border checks has been a prime accomplishment of the Good Friday peace agreement that in 1998 helped curtail decades of violence, and the unfettered border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has helped business development on both sides.
The problem comes when Britain leaves the EU, because Brexit will mean the currently wide-open border on the island of Ireland marks a new dividing line between the EU and the U.K. And the U.K. will no longer abide by EU trading rules, so new ones will be needed.
WHAT IS BORIS JOHNSON’S PLAN TO RESOLVE THIS?
Britain’s new Brexit proposal, given to the EU on Wednesday, calls for Northern Ireland to leave the EU Customs Union, which would mean it would be in a separate customs territory to Ireland.
This means customs checks and customs declarations for trucks crossing the border, for example _ which sounds a lot like a physical border. But the British government proposal calls for customs declarations to be made electronically and for only a very small number of physical checks on goods, which would not be made at the border but at warehouses or other designated locations.
Britain says both sides would agree not to make checks at the actual border.
HOW WILL THIS INVISIBLE BORDER WORK?
There would have to be a new system of customs declarations and checks, with the British government hoping technological solutions can be found to streamline the paperwork. The EU has already poured very cold water on this. The new plan also calls on Northern Ireland to keep following the EU’s single market rules, which will no longer apply to the rest of the UK. As a result, there will have to be a new system of checks on goods being transported between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.
VOTERS IN NORTHERN IRELAND WANTED TO STAY IN THE EU. DO THEY GET ANY SAY?
Johnson is proposing that the Northern Ireland Assembly be given a chance to approve or reject the Brexit border arrangement, and then have a chance to extend it every four years. This plan depends on Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly, which was set up by the Good Friday peace accord, being brought back to life. Power-sharing collapsed two years ago and has not been revived.
This proposal is something the EU, and Ireland in particular, disagrees with, since it gives a regional legislature in a non-EU nation outsized impact on the policies of the EU’s 27 remaining nations.