British Prime Minister Theresa May could not break the political impasse over Brexit despite laboring greatly over it for nearly three years, her many attempts failing to deliver a promised agreement on Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Many of those failures were not Mrs. May’s fault. Indeed, her resignation effective June 7 does nothing to alter the stalemate between the British Parliament and the leaders of Europe. Her successor will face the same thorny problems.
A major reason Parliament repeatedly rejected the agreement Mrs. May was able to reach with Europe was that it threatened to divide the United Kingdom by placing a customs border between Northern Ireland and Britain.
It is unclear why the EU insisted on what is called a “hard” border between two parts of the United Kingdom. But responsibility for the failure of the Brexit negotiations lies in that unyielding position.
Both sides in the Brexit negotiations recognized the political imperative of avoiding a “hard” customs barrier at the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. That sort of border was all but ruled out by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the Irish Republican Army campaign of terror in Northern Ireland.
At least in theory, the control of goods traveling between the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU, and British territory does not require a barrier at either border. Goods can be cleared at facilities some distance away from the physical borders, similar to the so-called “dry inland ports” in Greer and Charlotte and can also be found within the borders of other EU countries.
The Brexit negotiators failed to find a solution for the border issue. Mrs. May presented the EU demand to Parliament as the best she could obtain, and Parliament said no, not once but three times. There were many other divisive issues in Brexit, but this one fatally divided Mrs. May’s majority. After a proposed fourth try failed to win support this week, Mrs. May was out of options. Her resignation was inevitable.
The legal deadline for achieving an agreement was missed earlier this year. But the date on which an automatic and disruptive “hard Brexit,” with no agreement in place, is supposed to occur has been extended to Oct. 31. Although Mrs. May tried to use the March 29 deadline to put pressure on the EU, she failed and Parliament said it wanted an extension.
The leading candidate to replace her in July as head of the Conservative Party is flamboyant former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who thanked her for her “stoic” leadership. Mr. Johnson, anything but stoic in his approach to politics, was a leader of the campaign for Britain to leave the EU, but seeing rough water ahead shrewdly yielded the top Conservative position and prime minister’s job to Mrs. May in 2016.
The Conservatives and Britain must soon decide whether to have a new general election, one that would test whether Britons still want to leave the EU. It is likely that the energetic Mr. Johnson will lead the Conservatives if an election is held. If he emerges as prime minister, however, he will face the same issue that defeated Mrs. May. Some think the choice facing Britain now is once more between Brexit and no Brexit. But if Britons still want out of Europe, the choice may well remain one between hard borders between Northern Ireland and Britain and a hard Brexit.