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The Brexit Impossibility Triangle

As the United Kingdom's chaotic quest to leave the European Union drags on, the country's leaders need to accept that the primary objectives of Brexit are, and always have been, mutually incompatible. Sadly, their refusal to acknowledge this is indicative of the kind of leadership that led to the current impasse.

OXFORD – With the European Union’s latest extension of the United Kingdom’s membership in the bloc, onlookers around the world are right to wonder why the Brexit process has proved so intractable. The short answer is that the UK’s government and parliament are trying to achieve three incompatible goals: preserving the country’s territorial integrity, preventing the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and enabling the UK to strike its own trade deals.

The British are finally confronting the fact that only two of these objectives can be met at any one time. This implies that there are three basic scenarios for moving ahead with Brexit.

The first scenario centers on a “free-trade union,” which would grant Britain autonomy over trade policy and territorial integrity in exchange for the return of a hard border in Ireland. Trade-policy autonomy requires that the UK leave both the EU customs union and the single market. In either case, customs and regulatory checks would have to be established at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Though some have suggested that new technologies could obviate the need for physical border checkpoints, no such technologies exist. Hence, a major risk in this scenario is that the return of a hard border would jeopardize the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

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