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Brexit: What went wrong with Theresa May's Chequers plan?

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Brexit: What went wrong with Theresa May's Chequers plan?

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May in London on September 21, 2018.
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Jack Taylor/Pool via Reuters
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Standing behind a podium at a hastily-organised press conference on Friday — fresh from a humiliating visit to Salzbug, Austria, where her Brexit plan had been all but shot down by EU leaders — British Prime Minister Theresa May went on the offensive.

"Yesterday, (EU Council President) Donald Tusk said our proposals would undermine the single market. He didn't explain how in any detail or make any counter-proposal. So we are at an impasse," May said.

"I have treated the EU with nothing but respect. The UK expects the same. A good relationship at the end of this process depends on it," she warned.

So what went wrong?

The Chequers plan

In July, after months of political infighting with members of her own ruling Conservative Party, May seemingly pulled off the impossible with the release of the so-called Chequers' plan.

Agreed by her cabinet at an away-day at the prime minister's Chequers country residence, it offered a much softer vision of what the country's exit from the EU would look like than initially laid out.

Under the plan, the UK would "maintain a common rulebook for all goods" with the EU by committing to continued harmonisation with EU rules.

It also offered concessions on the role of the European Court of Justice in UK-EU arbitration and proposed facilitated customs arrangement through which the UK could collect tariffs for the EU in order to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland — one of the thorniest issues of the country's divorce with the EU.

But the plan was immediately attacked.

Immediate domestic tensions

Two of May's cabinet ministers resigned in protest: Boris Johnson, the then-Foreign Secretary, and David Davis, who had until then headed the Brexit ministry.

Rallying behind them was the very vocal eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party that sees anything but a clean break from the EU as a betrayal to the referendum result.

Above all else, the Brexiters want to put an end to the EU's freedom of movement and believe leaving the customs union and single market is the best way to achieve that goal. Finally, they want the UK to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

For them, May's proposals are far too lenient and the prime minister was forced to defend her proposal at home from the get-go.

EU not convinced

To gather support on the continent, May sent her most trusted cabinet ministers on a diplomatic offensive during the UK's parliamentary summer recess. Meanwhile, she also visited French President Emmanuel Macron at his summer residence at Bregancon.

But it appeared to have had little effect and the EU was no less gentle with her than her own people had been.

Michel Barnier, the bloc's chief negotiator, initially welcomed the plan but then quickly said that not only were some of the proposals illegal to implement but that they would lead to an end of the single market and the European project.

At the root of the problem is Ireland which is split in two: Northern Ireland is part of the UK while the Republic, in the south, is an EU member state.

The two parts of the island and the two sides of the Brexit negotiations are adamant that a hard border cannot be implemented as it would endanger the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to the island after decades of violent sectarian conflict.

May's proposal is for the UK to collect tariffs for the EU — dismissed as illegal by Barnier — while the EU believes it would be easier for the northern region to remain in the customs union.

"It is something that I will never agree to — indeed, in my judgment it is something no British Prime Minister would ever agree to," May reiterated on Friday arguing that it would create a border in the Irish Sea instead and thus split up the UK.

What now?

May, who had poured most of her already much-depleted political capital to secure her cabinet's approval for the plan, once again had to contend with rumours of a leadership challenge at the beginning of the month.

Her impromptu speech may have bought her a bit more time, but Brexiters and Remainers — those who backed the UK staying in the EU in the 2016 referendum — within her government continue to tussle over what the UK's relationship with the EU should be once the divorce is finalised.

On the continent, few appear to have been swayed by her latest bout of tough rhetoric. German Deputy Minister Michael Roth said on Twitter the entire EU was striving to find solutions and that "the blame game against the EU is, therefore, more than unfair."

French Minister for European Affairs, Nathalie Loiseau, also criticised May, telling France Info radio on Saturday that Brexit "cannot lead to the EU going bust".

"That's the message we have tried to send for several months now to our British counterparts, who may have thought we were going to say "yes" to whatever deal they came up with," she said.

So with only six months to go before the UK formally leaves the European Union, negotiations appear to once again be at a standstill and the Chequers' plan may just be on its last leg.