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What Comes After a Chaotic Week in Brexit?

What Comes After a Chaotic Week in Brexit?

Monday, 1 April, 2019 - 06:15
Friday was meant to be the day that Britain officially left the European Union. It was instead the day lawmakers rejected Theresa May’s exit deal for a third time, plunging the country deeper into crisis.

It marked the ninth consecutive “no” vote this week, after MPs rejected eight ways forward on Wednesday. In the end, May summed it up best: “We are reaching the limits of this process in this House.”

There are now only two ways Britain can leave the EU without crashing out amid chaos: by agreeing to a different plan, or electing a different parliament. Increasingly, the latter seems the more likely.

May had until Friday to get parliamentary backing for her deal in return for the EU extending Britain’s departure deadline until May 22. Now the UK has until April 12 to let the EU know what it plans to do. Legally, the default is that the country leaves without a deal if it doesn’t choose another course.

Britain could seek a further extension, but it would have to participate in elections to the European parliament, something bound to be contentious on both sides of the English Channel. The UK would also have to explain to Brussels how it would use the extra time.

The European Commission now says a no-deal exit is a “likely scenario” for which it is now fully prepared. Does that seem overly dramatic? I don’t think so. Given this parliament’s record of indecision, and the fact that the leadership of both major parties have taken positions that put electoral advantage ahead of finding common cause, it would be foolish to rule out a no-deal exit just because nobody wants one.

If that is what happens, the Labour Party won’t be able to avoid a great share of the blame. Brexiters sowed the seeds of the current crisis and pushed the government to complete dysfunction. But the opposition party’s position has lacked coherence. Labour says it wants assurances that the future trade relationship will feature close ties with the EU, but those require acceptance of May’s Withdrawal Agreement – which Labour MPs rejected again on Friday. It was partisanship masquerading as principle.

The EU has called an emergency summit for April 10. It has also set out the conditions under which it would reopen negotiations after a no-deal exit. They look strikingly similar to the terms of the divorce deal that parliament keeps rejecting – including a guarantee that keeps the Irish border open, payments into the EU budget, and guarantees of EU citizens’ rights.

There is always irony in these Brexit milestones. Friday’s was that May’s exit plan now has won more votes than any of the other options. It’s hard to see how she will manage to bring her deal back a fourth time – but she could try.

Parliament will weigh the other options on Monday. In Wednesday’s indicative voting, the least unpopular choice was a “confirmatory referendum” on an (unspecified) deal. Since Labour supports the referendum and most Tories oppose it, it’s not clear how that option can win much additional support.

Then there’s the option of remaining in a customs union. That may have the best chance of getting enough cross-party support to garner a majority.

Whatever plan is chosen, the future trading relationship between Britain and the EU would have to be negotiated by a future leader and supported by parliament. Theresa May, if we know anything about her, hasn’t finished yet. But if there is any chance of her deal, or some version of it, being resurrected, it would need to be with Labour support and a promise of new elections. The alternative would be a no confidence vote that would end up in the same place.

Meantime, May clings to office, and parliament is deadlocked. Three years after the British electorate went to the polls in the EU referendum, it looks increasingly likely it will be asked back to find a way to resolve the mess that vote created.

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