EU Likens Brexit to Divorce

As a no-deal Brexit becomes more likely, the EU is taking things personally.

POLITICO EU (“UK can’t escape Irish backstop with no-deal Brexit“):

No deal is no escape from the Northern Ireland backstop.

The U.K. will face firm preconditions for any talks with the EU following a no-deal Brexit, European Commission Secretary-General Martin Selmayr told ambassadors at a meeting in Brussels today.

A day after the U.K. parliament rejected a host of Brexit outcomes, EU officials met to take stock of their own options. They reaffirmed that a no-deal scenario cannot be as favorable as the deal negotiated between London and Brussels in November.

Speaking to ambassadors of the EU27 countries, Selmayr said that if the U.K. leaves without a deal, the EU must present it with three preconditions for starting any new discussions, three diplomats confirmed to POLITICO. These are: Trade talks will not begin until the U.K. agrees to settle its financial obligations to the bloc; the protection of EU citizens’ rights in the U.K. must be ensured; and there must be safeguards to protect the Good Friday Agreement, Selmayr said, according to the diplomats.

EU officials are worried that if the U.K. crashes out of the bloc, it would suspend its payments into the EU’s coffers, despite what the EU regards as a legal obligation to keep transferring funds it has pledged under the bloc’s long term budget.

One senior EU diplomat noted that the three areas brought up in the meeting are “permanent concerns” for the EU27. Another senior diplomat argued that “if one walks out of a marriage, one cannot then approach one’s former spouse as if they are meeting for the very first time ever.”

It’s a rather amusing analogy given that we’re talking political creations rather than individual people but it’s nonetheless a reasonable point. And the UK Parliament’s continual inability after two years to accept that Brexit means losing the perquisites of EU membership as well as the chafing constraints is rather frustrating.

As to the backstop, a recent NYT explainer is quite useful:

Why is a backstop needed?

In short, it is a way to avoid building a physical border, with checkpoints for goods, on the boundary between Ireland, a European Union member country, and Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom.

Simple, right? In fact, achieving that goal when Britain leaves the bloc, and doing it in a way that satisfies both the British Parliament and European negotiators, turns out to be a bit like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle while blindfolded.

Don’t European countries check imports?

In global terms, goods crossing from one nation to another often have to undergo checks for two main reasons: to make sure that the importer pays customs duties, or tariffs; and to make sure that the merchandise meets the importing country’s standards. (Think of it this way: Did you pay the tariff on that toaster, or car, or sausage? And is it safe to use, or drive, or eat?)

However, the European Union has done away with all of that inside the bloc, eliminating barriers — both physical and like the examples above — that might impede trade between its 28 member countries.

Instead, the member nations have a customs union, meaning that they do not charge tariffs on one another’s products. And they have a single market, sharing a single set of product standards.

In addition, the 1998 Good Friday agreement that helped end sectarian violence in Northern Ireland is widely seen as being incompatible with a hard border between that part of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Officials in Ireland, in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the European Union all insist that must not change, and no faction in the British Parliament wants it to change.

What changes when Britain exits the E.U.?

Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union on March 29, but under the agreement that Prime Minister Theresa May has negotiated with Brussels, there would be no immediate change in trade. Britain would remain in both the customs union and the single market until at least the end of 2020, during which Brussels and London would attempt to negotiate a permanent trade relationship.

At that point, if no deal has been reached, either the transition period could be extended until 2022 or the Irish backstop could come into effect. The backstop could also come into play if an agreement has still not been found by 2022.

A long-term trade deal with the European Union could mean leaving both the customs union and the single market, which is what Mrs. May proposes and what the hard-line pro-Brexit faction wants. Britain would be able to strike trade deals with other parts of the world, and to opt out of European standards.

Under current rules, that would mean checking goods flowing across the Irish border. And with today’s technology, that would require physical barriers and border checks.

Alas, Brexit means Brexit.

FILED UNDER: Europe, Science & Technology, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    It is disturbing how many voters and leaders around the role have embraced fantasist notions and refuse to give them up despite all the real world evidence. This may be tin foil hat territory, but given the similarities between the British Tabloid voter/politician and the Fox News Bloc here, I find it disturbing that both of those media sources are controlled by the same billionaire, a foreigner to both Britain and America.

  2. SKI says:

    I was thinking about Brexit this morning and wondering why there has’t been a political leader standing up in to say that they should, at least for now, withdraw the Article 50 notice (something the EU has already said they would allow).

    The political argument would be based upon an analogy to deciding to move and to rent a new flat. Britain, via the referendum, decided to move neighborhoods and chose a particular flat to move into (Brexit). It was a tough/close decision but it was a decision. But when the terms of the lease came back (or the inspection report with respect to a house), there were real problems that made them rethink whether it was the right thing to do. It is therefore appropriate to, now with more information about the actual costs/benefits/risks, to stop and rethink whether they really want to move into that flat/house/neighborhood. We should therefore withdraw the Article 50 notice and have a real discussion and new decision on Brexit with the new knowledge.

    Got to think that would be the smartest approach.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I start my mornings everyday with the latest Brexit news. Brightens my mood every time.

  4. James Joyner says:


    I was thinking about Brexit this morning and wondering why there has’t been a political leader standing up in to say that they should, at least for now, withdraw the Article 50 notice (something the EU has already said they would allow).

    It has always struck me as the obvious answer but, clearly, there’s a deep-seated cultural aversion to backing down here. There is no Rainbows and Unicorns Brexit option.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: The indicative votes the other day showed that the only thing they can agree on is that they can’t agree on anything.

  6. JohnSF says:

    It was expected first round of indicative votes would not produce a winner; further voting was planned for Monday from the outset. Further in Guardian.
    Idea is they can now drop least popular options and hold series of votes dropping more each time to reach a consensus or at least majority on Monday.

    Breaking news: May deal vote fails a third time. 344 votes to 286.

    Technically only a vote on part of her deal, withdrawal part not political agreement, to get round ban on repeated votes on same motion.

    Also probably an attempt at being tricky: to be in a position to take UK past effective deadline to revoke of EU elections in April, then confront Parlt. with blunt choice of May deal or No Deal.

    While ERG-ers who defected to May (Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Raab etc.) probably plotting on May leaving (or if she baulked forcing her out) installing an ERG leader, and reneging on the deal with the EU to force No Deal exit.

    With May deal finally dead (though don’t bet against it’s undead corpse lurching back on the scene) the question now is what happens to government vote.
    They abstained in last indicative voting.
    If that changes, could alter likely course of Monday’s votes unpredictably.

  7. grumpy realist says:

    May’s WA rejected for the third time.

    I’m keeping an eagle eye on what the EU is doing. I suspect that at some point the powers that be will realise that the U.K. will never do any realistic planning and will decide the EU might as well just charge ahead with a No-Deal Brexit and let the U.K. flounder as it pleases. U.K. activity is all in the hands of the politicians, who are having catfights with each other in order to remain (or gain) in power. Few of them even know the difference between a Single Market and a Customs Union. Half of the U.K. is now wallowing in nostalgia, insistent that crashing out of the EU with a “no deal Brexit” will somehow magically return everyone to a point in time where “Britain ruled the waves” and, well, 1950s. A lot of the sentimentalists are wistfully speaking about “bringing back the Commonwealth”, ignoring the fact that Australia and New Zealand are far more occupied with China and Japan than a small, rain-soaked country on the other side of the world. And India has already told the U.K. in no uncertain terms that unless the U.K. makes it much easier for Indian immigration forget about a separate FTA.

    The major difference between the U.K. and the EU at present is the caliber of the civil servants (and the caliber of the politicians.) In the EU, the civil servants sharpen their teeth on these sorts of negotiations for regulations and have a bloody good idea of what is absolutely necessary. The politicians are intelligent enough to listen to them when the civil servants tell them “do it this way.” While in the U.K., the civil servants have been dwindling in quality–partly because anyone with any abilities has been so frustrated that he/she has vamoosed. And the Eton brats continue to assume that arrogance and a handful of Latin tags are sufficient education to run a country.

    Ireland has added to its ro-ro capabilities (third has just entered service). The Eu will continue to support Ireland, with or without a border with Northern Ireland. (I suspect that Brexit has advanced the reunification of Ireland by a decade or so.) Now we’ll have a good test case: two English-speaking countries, side by side. One in the EU, one outside. Who will win this horse race? I wouldn’t be surprised if over the next five to twenty years we see the U.K. dwindle back into what the Romans always considered it–a rain-soaked island off the end of the civilised world inhabited by barbarians.

  8. SKI says:

    @James Joyner:

    It has always struck me as the obvious answer but, clearly, there’s a deep-seated cultural aversion to backing down here. There is no Rainbows and Unicorns Brexit option.

    I don’t think its cultural. I’m a fan of Tottenham Hotspur and have daily interactions with a ton of Brits and it isn’t the general populace that resists change (subject to nano-bubbles of course) but a weird political dynamic where the Tories are dependent on hard-core Brexiters and Labor is led by Corbyn who doesn’t like the EU for other reasons.

    I hope they face reality and put country over partisan politics but I’m no more confident they will than I am of our own congresscritters doing so.

  9. gVOR08 says:

    Betty Cracker at Balloon Juice has front paged commenter Tony Jay who has the best short explanation of this whole stupid Brexit (and Trump) situation I’ve seen. And the funniest. Difficult to excerpt, and deserves a full read, but concludes anti-Brexit Tories are in the same position as anti-Trump Republicans.

    They either break with the Party whip and grab onto the next available life-raft, whether that means backing a confirmatory referendum on May’s deal, revoking Article 50, or backing a Labour vote of no-confidence in the Government to force a General Election. They are the only people who can stop this, but in doing so they’ll break their Party for a generation and probably never win elected office again.

  10. charon says:


    I just read your link. Age gap on both sides of the Atlantic, old people are racists, young people know they are suffering for it.

  11. Kathy says:

    I heard May say something like “you don’t want No Deal, you don’t want no Brexit, and you don’t want any deal,” words to that effect. and that sums things up rather well.

    It seems to me that, in essence, the mainstream”leave” voters want the benefits of free trade, free movement, and single market, without the obligations that come with it (ie, they want to be free to move around Europe, but not to have other Europeans freely moving around Britain). They want the upsides without the downsides, which violates the most fundamental law of nature: there’s a downside to everything.

  12. Jen says:

    The circles they are trapped in are alarming to watch. That series of votes the other day would have been funny were it not all so serious. We have a number of close friends over in the UK, and they are all pulling their hair out over this (most are 50 or younger and all voted Remain, so a bubble of sorts).

    The Leave voters seem to have believed that they’d be able to retain all of the benefits of remaining in the EU while throwing off all of the restrictions. It’s not any different than thinking you can magically have something “better than Obamacare” without any costs.

    What in heaven’s name is afflicting voters on both sides of the pond to think this way? It’s unicorn-thinking.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    @charon: Does the UK have the same problem we do? That old people are afraid of the future and vote in droves, while young people are more realistic, but the little bastards do’t vote. Without evidence, I would assume so. Leaves it to old liberals like me to try to save the world.

  14. JohnSF says:

    Give me strength!
    May is planning to bring back her deal for fourth attempt.
    Won’t somebody stake this effin vampire?

    Once again Ian Dunt says, mostly, what I’m thinking much better.

    Monday is the decisive day: Parliament can forge an agreed position.
    The government will then face the real moment of truth: to accede to the sovereignty of Parliament or to defy it and assert some lunatic formulation of Executive Privilege.

    p.s. Petition to revoke now at 5,976,331 signatures.
    It’ll crack 6 mil on Saturday or you can paint me red and call me a radish.

  15. charon says:


    I don’t know about turnout, but I recall seeing Remain polls around 75% with young people.

  16. JohnSF says:

    Honestly, as a confirmed unicorn-sceptic, the indicative votes really weren’t as bad as they seemed.
    Organisers had expected no decisive outcome on the first attempt; that’s why they’d scheduled a second round for Monday in advance.

    First round was not a series but a single vote with all options on the ballot and MP’s able to vote yes or no (or abstain) on each.

    Idea was to get a measure of which are most popular and also most unpopular.
    (Useful chart)

    On Monday they drop the least popular and run a series of votes to determine which can win. Possibly in combination.

    I think the winner might be a CU/SM hybrid with explicit acceptance of EU requirements (Freedom of Labour, ECJ jurisdiction etc) and a confirmatory referendum with a choice between Parlt. option and May Deal or NoDeal.
    (I pause now to smile maliciously at the prospect of Brexiters tearing themselves apart arguing over which the alternative should be.)

    What the EU has very carefully said and NOT said (and they say and do not anything without very exact legal and political calculation; they are consummate professionals at this) indicates they are still willing to modify terms if the UK erases the Brexiters “red lines”.

  17. grumpy realist says:

    Good article over at The Guardian pointing out how this really is a culture war going on….inside Britain. The EU is only the McGuffin that the two sides of the Tory Party are fighting over.

    Oh, and again–if you want to know exactly why sashaying out of the EU isn’t as simple as the ERG thinks it is, take a look at The researcher who runs it is a Leaver, but he’s a “let’s do this the right way” Leaver and knows all the regulatory snafus that the U.K. is now about to stumble into.

  18. JohnSF says:

    Just re-read my earlier comment.

    “…and they say and do not anything without…”

    Clearly, my ability to write plain English is collapsing under stress.

  19. Kathy says:

    one time I observed two dogs playing with a stick. the first one would take the stick and run with it around the yard, keeping it away from the other dog, who wanted to take it.

    She would bark to warn the other dog off, but then the stick fell off her mouth and the other dog just took it. She looked stunned she couldn’t bark and hold on to the stick. Eventually she’d get the stick back, and the same thing would happen again.

    I don’t suppose May si stunned when her plan gets voted down again, but she reminds me of that poor dog trying to hold on to the stick.

  20. JohnSF says:

    @grumpy realist:
    Yes, was going to link to Freedland’s article myself.
    He has another recent one on how the endgame to this could get very nasty indeed.

    Also at Guardian Rafael Behr on the test-to-destruction of the current party system.

    And Professor Chris Gray’s Brexit Blog posting is well worth reading as well.

    Re. the EUreferndum guys: true, the North’s are a lot more realistic than the crazed Brexiters of UKIP and the Tory opportunists and fools, (even if Pete North is more than a bit of a dick as a person).

    As a Remain voter I was, immediately post-referendum, ready to accept a “flexit” sort of proposal as a reasonable compromise.

    Though even that, in hindsight, fails IMHO to address the problems of the UK/Irish border, or the time needed and negotiation positioning for new trade deals, which requires at least a temporary customs continuity, which North has always ben dead set against.

    But all Remainer compromise overtures got was “citizens of nowhere”, “EEA is no Brexit”, “red lines” etc.
    Now I’d be more inclined, personally, to revoke and let ’em choke on it.

    Though I’d probably still back down from that on grounds of political tactics.

    And because, though I would happily consign the Brexiter leadership to the Tower, we still have share the country with those who voted leave, whether it was because they believed the Brexiter lies, as a displacement activity for resentments, or from various sources of genuine conviction.

  21. Stormy Dragon says:


    Irrational beliefs are like any other economic good: the cheaper they get, the more of them people want. And currently there is almost no personal cost for believing completely ridiculous things.

  22. JohnSF says:

    The British Parliamentary press corps upholds the best traditions of Fleet Street 🙂
    “Rumours No. 10 calling a 5pm presser. F**k them. It’s Friday. We’re all going to the pub.”

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JohnSF: And Monday is April Fool’s Day; is that ironic or what?

  24. JohnSF says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Irony, tragedy or farce.
    “Here cometh April again, and as far as I can see the world hath more fools in it than ever.”

  25. JohnSF says:

    I am red, therefore I am a radish.

  26. grumpy realist says:

    Theresa May is now calling for a snap election and all the rest of the Tories are yelling “NOOO!!!”

    Both the Mogg and the Oaf now have egg all over their faces having voted for Theresa May’s WA this last time around after having fulminated so much against it before. The Telegraph commentators are taking this as expected: “Treason” and “Quisling” are the kinder comments. (their knee-jerk reaction to identify anything they don’t like as “treason” gets depressing at time. But these critters vote.) As far as they’re concerned, the only party worth voting for is the Brexit party or UKIP. Which, since both parties are nothing more than the ego-formations of Nigel Farage–are probably going to a) fight against each other like cats in a sack and b) carry out sublimely stupid actions which will sink them politically. UKIP has the history, but has veered off into Islamophobia, racism, and other goals of the alt-right. Brexit has Nigel Farage (maybe) and a mailing list of a large number of ardent Brexit lovers quite willing to send 25 pounds or more to unchartered organisations without carrying out any due diligence.

    ….suckers, I think we call them here in the US? Someone will be making out like a bandit. I suspect NF are his initials.

  27. rachel says:

    I suspect NF are his initials.

    Ya think?