For months, the struggle to work out a temporary fix for the Irish border stood in the way of a Brexit deal. Now, it turns out the solution looks neither temporary nor solely for the Irish border.
Many on the EU side of the negotiations believed—and hoped—this would always be the outcome.
As the agreement gets picked over by Theresa May’s Cabinet, it will become clear that in signing up to the so-called backstop to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, the UK may be committing itself to something more permanent. The UK will be in a customs union with the bloc indefinitely, unless a better idea emerges in the next two years.
Sabine Weyand, the EU’s deputy chief negotiator went further. She told member-states on Friday that the deal means the EU has succeeded in making the customs union “the basis of the future relationship,” according to a diplomatic note of her meeting with representatives of EU governments.
Since the start of the Brexit negotiations, EU officials have said privately they believe the UK would ultimately remain in the customs union even as May repeatedly ruled it out as a betrayal of the referendum result. People familiar with the negotiations even said the EU’s strategy was to gradually push the UK into this position.
While May is still able to say the arrangement set out in the draft agreement is temporary—and may never be used because it won’t start until 2021 at the earliest—the Brexit deal stipulates that it can only come to an end if a permanent trade deal keeps the Irish border invisible. Barring huge technological advances, it’s hard to imagine how that would come to pass.