LONDON—When Brexit-backing lawmakers voted twice to reject Theresa May’s negotiated deal on the terms of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, they did so largely out of distrust. Principally, they worried that the prime minister’s plan would risk binding the country to EU rules and regulations indefinitely, and that the EU, contrary to its many assurances, would act in bad faith to see that happen.
Distrust of Europe and its institutions here in Britain is hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, it was one of the central themes underlying the Brexit campaign. But this distrust, paradoxically, might pose a threat to that very project, raising the possibility that it will not happen at all.
The main source of some Brexit proponents’ opposition to the prime minister’s deal is the so-called Irish backstop, a stopgap measure agreed on by British and EU negotiators to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping the U.K. aligned with EU trading rules, at least until both sides can negotiate a trade deal to replace it. Brexiteers worry that it might leave Britain permanently tied to the bloc’s rules. May had hoped (ultimately in vain) that by securing additional assurances from the EU that it doesn’t want the backstop to go into effect—and that the British government would be able to seek recourse from independent arbiters if it did—she might be able to persuade some of the deal’s opponents to change their mind.