Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempted Brexit concession to the European Union on Northern Ireland risked further disuniting the U.K. as regional leaders at either end of the country immediately called for similar treatment.
May’s openness to allow Northern Ireland to continue abiding by the bloc’s rules and standards after the U.K. leaves appeared to open a Pandora’s Box of constitutional woes, as first Scotland’s first minister and then London’s mayor—both of whom opposed Brexit—suggested that they too could benefit from such a deal.
“If one part of U.K. can retain regulatory alignment with EU and effectively stay in the single market (which is the right solution for Northern Ireland) there is surely no good practical reason why others can’t,” Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon tweeted.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan followed suit minutes later. “Huge ramifications for London if Theresa May has conceded that it’s possible for part of the U.K. to remain within the single market & customs union after Brexit,” Khan said in a tweet. “Londoners overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU and a similar deal here could protect tens of thousands of jobs.”
London and Scotland may be 400 miles apart but their political sensibilities align on Brexit: voters in both places opted to stay in the EU in last year’s referendum even as the U.K. as a whole chose to quit the bloc.
May’s message of special treatment for Northern Ireland thus contrives to help legitimize the notion pushed by Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party that a new independence push is a justifiable response, while fanning London’s concerns that it has most to lose from Brexit as its financial industry prepares to relocate part of its operations to the continent.
The prime minister also risks a backlash from the unionist DUP party, on whom she relies for support in Parliament. “The Democratic Unionist Party won’t accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom,” its Arlene Foster told reporters.
In a sign of the sway the DUP holds over the British Premier, May broke away from her key lunch meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday to call Foster, in an effort to avert a potential mutiny that would down the government.
And if May’s problems weren’t enough already, Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones also weighed in, demanding equal treatment for everyone. “We cannot allow different parts of the U.K. to be more favorably treated than others,” Jones said in a tweet. “If one part of the U.K. is granted continued participation in the Single Market & Customs Union, then we fully expect to be made the same offer.”
Ireland epitomizes the hard dilemmas stemming from the Brexit decision, as the options available either undermine the U.K’s territorial integrity or risk reviving a border associated with violence and religious hatred. The Good Friday Agreement that put an end to decades of bloodshed rests upon the assumption that north and south of Ireland are “partners in the European Union,” sharing its single market.
Keeping the whole of the U.K. anchored to the EU’s rules and regulations would facilitate a post-Brexit trade agreement and remove the need for a special status for Northern Ireland, but it would also be seen as a betrayal of hard Brexiteers demanding a return of national sovereignty. And the alternative to regulatory fragmentation may be worse: If May were to resist EU demands for such concessions, she would risk a chaotic Brexit without a deal.