The European Union's message is clear: no Irish border negotiations. So what can the British prime minister achieve? The best case scenario is that Brexit is delayed, writes DW's Bernd Riegert.
We're no smarter after Tuesday's vote in the UK Parliament. There isn't majority support among lawmakers for a single one of the possible paths to Brexit. All we know is that they don't want to leave the European Union without an agreement — the feared "no deal" Brexit. MPs haven't said how an agreement will get through Parliament — the same Parliament that rejected a deal last week. They couldn't agree on whether to extend the negotiating period, hold new elections or a second referendum, or cancel the entire Brexit process. The only thing Parliament has thus far been able to do is give Prime Minister Theresa May the difficult task of reaching another agreement with the EU within the next two weeks.
The border problem
MPs opted to replace the Irish backstop, which is aimed at preventing a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, with "alternative arrangements" — a move May supported. But actually achieving that seems impossible at the moment. EU leaders in Brussels, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have repeatedly said the Irish border question is not up for negotiation.
Now the war of nerves begins. Who will move first? It all depends on the government in Ireland. Above all, they want to avoid a hard border with Northern Ireland, which could hamper peace efforts in the region. But if Ireland and the EU don't budge, that could lead to a no-deal Brexit and thus a hard border. May could be betting that the Irish government will give in at the last minute in order to avoid just that scenario. She has nothing to lose at this point. She can bet everything on this one hand.
Read more: Why is the Irish backstop so controversial?
Hope for a delay?
The EU, meanwhile, is hoping that over the next two weeks the UK will peer into the Brexit abyss, come to its senses, and get a last-minute extension of the negotiating phase — for a few weeks or perhaps months. This would have the added advantage of avoiding any immediate economic damage to the UK, as well as giving Westminster time to come up with a plan B for an orderly exit from the EU.
The hope of managing Brexit still remains in Brussels, but it is growing weaker. Members of the European Parliament, as well as EU diplomats, are tired of the Brexit saga. At the moment, nobody would bet a lot of money that the UK will exit the EU on March 29. Delay, win time and wait — that's the EU's only tactic at the moment.