Pascal Lamy, the former head of the World Trade Organization and two-time European commissioner, attempted to capture the asymmetry when describing Brexit not as a negotiation but “an adjustment”. On hearing the quote, one senior EU figure involved in Brexit talks cried: “Voila!”
There will be no bespoke Brexit deal. The UK will pay at least €50bn as part of its divorce bill. The UK does not hold the strong cards. The EU has a no surrender policy: it doesn't negotiate, it states its terms, patiently waits, and watches while the UK folds.
Now, on the question of a hard border between the north and south of Ireland, which in various ways would pose a threat to the 'Good Friday Agreement', it looks as if the government is about to make a further, substantial concession.
Current reports of draft deal being hammered out suggest that there will be "regulatory alignment" on the island of Ireland. Faisal Islam of Channel 4 News quotes a source that speaks of "full alignment" on those parts of the customs union that would lead to a hard border. That would, in effect, mean that there was a border in the Irish Sea.
Now, that could bring down the government. Never mind the careerists seeking Poujadist credibility in her midst. She relies on the DUP, and one point on which the DUP will not relent, for a second, is that the border must not be placed in the Irish sea. Any divergence of Northern Ireland's constitutional status from the rest of the UK, Arlene Foster has said, is unacceptable.
Unsurprisingly, the DUP is angrily and nervously 'rejecting' these reports, suggesting that it understands the UK government's position differently. Sammy Wilson, who is ordinarily the sort of MP who makes remarks that even his own wild party of fundamentalists 'distances themselves from', is cautious. But he doesn't forget to mention the nuclear option:
"I'm not going to let leaks from the Irish Government draw me down a road speculatively on what's going to happen.
"We have the political leverage in the House of Commons to hold the government to that agreement and we will do that."
The DUP is threatening to collapse the government. In case the message is too subtle, check out Arlene Foster's response, and the re-tweets on the party's Twitter feed.
The government claims that "the UK is leaving the European Union as a whole and the territorial and economic integrity of the United Kingdom will be protected". The only way for this to happen, would be for May to agree to the same conditions in the rest of the UK as in Northern Ireland. In other words, pursuing "permanent regulatory convergence" with the EU. This is something that May's backbenchers, not to mention her own cabinet ministers, will find impossible to swallow. After all, it means accepting EU rules without having any say in them. It also raises the question of ECJ jurisdiction. If the UK is, in effect, permanently adjusting to ECJ rulings, then it is in effect subordinate to that body.
This is why the pro-Brexit economist Andrew Lilico thinks that if May has agreed to: i. pay €50bn to the EU, ii. allow continued ECJ jurisdiction over some British subject; iii. allow NI to stay in the customs union and single market ("in all but name" as reports currently suggest), then she is gone.
So the question is this: if, legal sophistry aside, May has given in on all points with the effect of creating an Irish sea border, will the DUP surrender? Never, never, never, or just this once? After all, the alternative is potentially letting Jeremy Corbyn into Number Ten and, as far as they're concerned, he's dirty fenian-loving Ra-supporting scum. Better the devil you know, perhaps.
If you answer this question on the basis that the DUP is a 'normal' right-wing party making the usual calculations for incremental advantage, you will get it only half-right. The DUP is not a bourgeois party. It is a party with its roots in small town, provincial Protestant reaction. In particular, it is a party whose origins lie in a struggle led by the founder of the Free Presbyterian church, Ian Paisley, against Catholic civil rights (cf, "Romanism", "the Papal anti-Christ", etc).
The theology of Free Presbyterianism, which is massively over-represented in the upper ranks of the DUP, is pivoted on this: you are here as a Christian to wage holy war against the devil. That is what the "Church Militant" means. God's people separate from the world, much as in the Bible Israel was separated from Egypt, in order to contend for souls within it. God's people don't come to terms with "modernism". God's people don't pander to convivial notions of unity, compromise, or dialogue with apostasy. Peace is for the grave. God's people don't become like the world. And one's life is eminently worth laying down for the precious Saviour.
The faith motivates the reactionaries, galvanises provincial men and women with otherwise relatively little social or political power, and turns them into instruments of God. They really believe, you must understand, that ultimately, whatever setbacks they have, no matter how terrifying the devil's reign is, God will win their battles for them, provided they are saved and have faith in Christ. It puts the blue rinse brigade and the ruddy-faced bullshitters on the front lines. It situates them in the struggle. It gives them literally supernatural confidence and accounts in large measure for their bluster, their complacent self-satisfaction, and their fantasy politics.
The Loyalist struggle, from this point of view, is against the encroachments of anti-Christianity in one of the remaining strongholds of Protestant faith. And this very small fundamentalist sect has wielded extraordinary influence within Northern Irish politics, well beyond its tiny constituency, supplying the core activists and footsoldiers of the DUP and its various paramilitary enterprises.
There was some media speculation that this fundamentalist focus was changing under Arlene Foster's leadership. Foster, a Church of Ireland woman, certainly cuts a more professional and less sweaty and bulging-eyed look than many of her colleagues. But there is no evidence for any liberalisation. And in fact, the new division of labour relieves the Wee Frees of responsibility for things that First Ministers have to take care of, like LGBT rights.
I suspect, then, that the DUP would be happy to collapse both the government, and the Good Friday Agreement. The coalition is an alliance of convenience: the DUP are not Tories in today's sense. They may hate Corbyn, but they hate a border in the Irish sea even more. Meanwhile, the Agreement is based on communal power-sharing, when the DUP and Sinn Fein cannot agree on such points as: recognition of the Irish language, marriage equality, the Bill of Rights, legacy inquests and so on.
I don't think the DUP can give in on this and remain the same party. Even if Foster wanted to cut a deal behind some arse-saving casuistry, any attempt to do so would create a new schism.
Which means that either May has to accept that the coalition is falling apart, and call a new election; or she has to brazenly dare her own MPs and cabinet colleagues to collapse the government and force a new election. Right now, we're waiting to see which she has actually chosen.