BRUSSELS — To try to preserve her support within her own fractured Conservative Party, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said on Tuesday that she would seek to reopen the withdrawal agreement painfully negotiated with the European Union to alter what is known as “the Irish backstop.”
That may have been a smart tactical move, as a domestic political matter. The problem remains, however, that the European Union has said flatly that it will not reopen the withdrawal agreement or remove the backstop, increasing the possibility of a “no-deal Brexit” on March 29 that would damage the economies of both sides, but particularly Britain’s.
By trying to pressure the European Union to alter its stance on the backstop, which she negotiated and her cabinet supported, Mrs. May is essentially playing chicken with Brussels, trying to turn her own political vulnerability into a benefit.
And she has some leverage. Little attention is paid to the dilemma faced by the Irish government and hence the European Union over a no-deal Brexit. Accepting it would risk the very outcome that the backstop is designed to prevent — a hard border between Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, a member of the European Union.
Nevertheless, Brussels has said the 585-page withdrawal agreement cannot be changed, a position strongly supported by the other 27 members of the European Union, who argue that a guarantee is necessary, in case trade talks break down, and by definition cannot be time-limited.
“There’s no negotiation between the E.U. and the U.K. — that negotiation is finished,” Sabine Weyand, the deputy chief negotiator for the European Union, said on Monday. “We are not going to reopen the withdrawal agreement.” The most that could happen, officials have said, is some alterations in the wording of an accompanying, nonbinding political statement about a future relationship.
Despite the desire of both sides to avoid it, a “no-deal” Brexit is a real prospect. It is the default outcome, scheduled to occur automatically on March 29 if no one does anything more.
So might the Europeans be prepared to reconsider guarantees meant to prevent a future hard border, if the alternative is a hard border appearing within weeks?
For the moment, Brussels is adamant that the answer is no. In a seminar Monday run by the European Policy Center, a Brussels think tank, Ms. Weyand said that every possible alternative notion now being brought up by the British had already been discussed in the negotiations, and discarded as inadequate.
“There are now ideas floating around again, and it does feel like Groundhog Day, about a time limit to the backstop or a unilateral exit clause,” she said. “Let me just reassure you: None of this is new.”
Ms. Weyand said that “we looked at every border on this earth, every border the E.U. has with a third country — there’s simply no way you can do away with checks and controls.” In rare, on-the-record comments, she said that while British negotiators tried to replace the backstop with alternatives, whether technical or otherwise, they were unable to explain what the alternatives were “because they don’t exist.”
While Brussels also does not want to use the backstop, “the E.U. 27 were unanimous that a time limit to the backstop defeats the purpose of the backstop,” she added.
She said that the bloc would stand by the interests of a member state, Ireland, and would preserve its core foundation of the single market.
But all this puts Dublin in a very awkward place, with the border the focus of what Tony Connelly, the Europe editor for RTE, the Irish broadcaster, called “a maddeningly intractable piece of circular geometry involving Europe, Ireland and the British government.”
Ireland convinced Brussels to make a frictionless border a precondition of Britain’s withdrawal, part of the legally binding divorce deal; Britain wanted to leave it to the future. But now “Britain’s resistance to that precondition could bring about the hard border,” Mr. Connelly said.
The Europeans have argued that the backstop is only a fail-safe and could be replaced by alternative plans. The simplest would be a permanent customs union between Britain and Brussels, but many in the British Parliament oppose that.
Its requirements could also be met by putting a customs border in the Irish Sea, but that would treat Northern Ireland as essentially part of the European Union and is unacceptable to the Democratic Unionists, the Northern Ireland party that gives Mrs. May her parliamentary majority.
At the same time, a majority of the British Parliament wants to avoid leaving with no deal, even if they cannot agree on what they do want. Some believe that Mrs. May’s strategy is to get some form of new promises about the reluctance to trigger the backstop in language that could be considered binding, and then return to Parliament as the March 29 deadline approaches with a kind of ultimatum: this deal or no deal. But that, too, may result in an outcome no one wants.
As Ms. Weyand said, “There’s a very high risk of a crash-out not by design, but by accident.”