Fresh off a shocking election and with talks between Britain and the European Union beginning Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May is in between a rock and a hard place over Brexit.
While the prime minister has indicated she intends to remain in power, her government has been left in an unenviable position. Lacking the necessary 326 seats needed for an outright parliamentary majority, May has been forced to seek coalition partners, something that has proven tricky. Only one option has emerged: working with the the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a Northern Ireland’s largest Unionist party, which holds 10 seats in parliament — a small number, albeit one that the Conservatives (or Tories) now desperately need.
But working with the DUP is already shaping up to be a problem for May in a number of ways. The DUP is a far-right party, strongly opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, in addition to touting climate denialism and Islamophobia. But that’s hardly the only downside the party poses for the more center-right Tories. A partnership with the DUP means, among other things, a likely increase in money for often-overlooked Northern Ireland — something the rest of the United Kingdom is not particularly thrilled about. Working with the DUP also means added complications for Brexit.
One big question has been whether or not May will continue to demand a “hard” Brexit, one that would take Britain out of the European Union’s single market and customs union in exchange for closed borders and a harsh crackdown on immigration. A “soft” Brexit, by contrast, would keep Britain economically close to the E.U. market, likely in exchange for free movement of goods and services, to say nothing of people — exactly what Brexit campaigners had hoped to avoid.
May promised a hard Brexit, but a big loss at the polls for her party could mean a very different reality than the one she had anticipated when she first triggered Article 50, allowing Britain to exit the European Union.
“We now have a Parliament that’s gridlocked,” John Springford, research director for the London-based Center for European Reform, told the Washington Post, following the recent election. “It doesn’t appear that there’s a majority for hard Brexit, a majority for soft Brexit, or certainly not a majority for remain. It’s a very confused picture.”
May’s decision to call for a snap election in April seemed like a reasonable one at the time. The Tories held a narrow majority that was set to complicate May’s efforts to negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union. Intended to offer the Tories a bigger majority, and a mandate to pursue Brexit on May’s terms, the election instead saw a referendum on the prime minister’s leadership. The Tories lost 12 seats, while the leading opposition Labour party gained 31 seats.
May signaled in January that she would pursue a hard Brexit. But that route would have notable implications for Northern Ireland, whose population voted to remain within the European Union by 56 percent. Ripped apart by conflict for years, Northern Ireland is currently held together by a delicate peace process allowing for easy movement over the border with the Republic of Ireland, an E.U. member. Keeping that peace is a priority — especially for the DUP.
“No-one wants to see a hard Brexit,” DUP leader Arlene Foster asserted after the election, suggesting instead that Britain go about the process in “a way that respects the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland and our shared history and geography with the Republic of Ireland.”
The DUP campaigned for Brexit despite clear resistance on the part of Northern Ireland’s residents. But support for leaving doesn’t mean the party is in line with Brexit hardliners. Recognizing Northern Ireland’s precarious position, the DUP has straddled the line, with party leaders supporting Britain’s right to leave the European Union, while coming out against a hard Brexit.
Still, it’s unclear what exactly that will mean for the process itself. Meeting with new Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Dublin on Friday, Foster reiterated that she wanted a “sensible” Brexit, one that would work for the entire Irish island. “It takes two to tango,” Foster said, indicating that she was prepared to pressure May in order to win an optimal outcome for Northern Ireland. “We’re ready to dance.”
Foster is under pressure herself. Northern Irish farmers and industry groups want the United Kingdom to remain in the E.U. customs union, with good reason. If Britain exits the union without a deal, the Northern Irish economy is likely to suffer disproportionate to the rest of the country. While around 48 percent of England’s exports go to the European Union, Northern Ireland’s number is closer to 55 percent, with the Republic of Ireland serving as the province’s second-biggest trading partner after Britain itself.
Peter Donaghy, a data analyst who has tracked the DUP’s voting record, told Bloomberg that only one thing seems clear for now — an “ultra hard” Brexit probably isn’t happening. “It’s hard to figure out exactly what their position is,” he said. “They want a frictionless border but at the same time hint they want to leave the customs union, which is not a very consistent position. What we won’t have is an ultra-hard Brexit on the DUP’s watch.”
Hard or soft Brexit aside, May’s alliance with the DUP has sparked controversy for other reasons. Several leaders have voiced concern over the political implications inherent in joining forces with a Unionist party — especially as Sinn Féin, which supports reuniting with Ireland, continues its longstanding practice of refusing to take its seats in Britain’s parliament. Former Prime Minister John Major, a Conservative, cautioned May against an alliance with the DUP, warning that partnering with a Unionist party could splinter Northern Ireland’s fragile peace process.
“People shouldn’t regard [the peace process] as a given. It’s not certain, it’s under stress, it’s fragile,” Major said, stressing that Britain’s parliament should be viewed as impartial. “I understand why [May] wishes to shore up her Parliamentary position. That’s entirely understandable and I sympathise — but my main concern is the peace process.”