The first week of the New Year is always a quiet affair in Brussels, with Eurocrats and diplomats slowly returning to the city after the Christmas break.
However the drama of Brexit will not unfold in Brussels over the next few months. It will happen instead in London where the British Prime Minister Teresa May, is still trying to unlock a parliamentary majority for her withdrawal agreement with the EU.
On the surface the situation looks difficult for the Prime Minister. The meaningful vote in Parliament was delayed from December to mid January when it became apparent that there was no majority for the deal. The month’s delay was intended to give the government some breathing space and time to get some concessions from Brussels that might ensure that the government could win over enough of the rebels to get the deal passed.
However, Brussels has been unhelpful, refusing to offer any concession. The deal on the table therefore remains as it was last month and the parliamentary arithmetic also remains the same. All the opposition parties (many of whom are pro EU) oppose the deal, as do the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and many conservative MPs. As things stand the vote can not be won in the next few weeks.
If it can ever be won remains open to question. Whilst it may be difficult to win over the rebellious Conservative MPs, there is a chance that opposition MPs offer a path to the majority.
This is because as we get closer to the 29th March and the day the UK is scheduled to leave the EU, the more likely the possibility that the UK crashes out of the EU without any deal at all. Many opposition MPs are strong remainers, who in theory at least, are thought to want to maintain as close links with Brussels as possible. The assumption is that if there is a credible threat of no deal, enough of these MPs may be persuaded to abstain, allowing the vote to pass and no deal Brexit to be avoided.
This is probably why there has been so much focus on a no deal Brexit in the last few weeks, not to try to persuade rebel conservative MPs to vote for the deal, but to try to scare opposition MPs that their opposition would lead to a no deal Brexit, the opposite of what they would want.
The Prime Minister has the advantage of time. She can delay the vote or keep bringing it back to parliament after each rejection with the 29th March and a no deal Brexit getting closer and closer. Eventually, Labour MPs may abstain under the pressure, because the only alternative to the Prone Ministers deal is a no deal Brexit.
However that strategy relies on a credible threat that the government would opt for a no deal if it can’t get the vote through. Hence the no deal planning and rhetoric coming from the government.
Would the government actively opt for no deal in that scenario? Unlikely, but no one can be sure and as a result we are in game theory territory where everyone is second guessing everyone else.
The no deal threat looks real in one very important way - if nothing changes between now and then 29th March then no deal will become reality. Given the fact that no option froward has a majority in Parliament and even though there is a majority against no deal, legislation blocking it can only be brought by the government. If the government chooses not to bring forward legislation avoiding no deal then it will happen.
However, the government would be under intense pressure at that stage. The Parliament would table a motion against it, many Cabinet members and Conservative MPs would oppose it. More importantly the government would not be able to control what would happen to the country in a no deal scenario -- as I explained in this previous briefing, how severe no deal would be would largely be dictated by the EU -- or how the public would react to the abrupt changes that would follow.
Without political or parliamentary support it would be a huge risk for the government.
So we are in a situation where everyone is second guessing each other. However there are several potential scenarios and none are smooth or clean.
The first is that the government eventually gets the deal passed. (This is still the most likely outcome). This could come at any stage between now and the end of March. If that is the case then the UK should leave the EU on the 29th March. However there are still other pieces of legislation that need to go through Parliament before that can happen so with further delays it is still possible that the departure date will need to be delayed. (Which is possible by writing the new date in the withdrawal agreement) However the UK should leave by July at the latest.
In addition there is a possibility of a vote of no confidence in the government in the aftermath of the vote going through and that could see the DUP vote against the government, in which case there is a possibility the government could lose the vote. Forcing a general election at just the point when the legislation ensuring Britain’s exit needs to be finalised.
The second scenario is that the government can not get the deal through, despite attempting to run down the clock. However the government remains in control of the situation. Parliament can pass whatever motions it wants, (although there doesn’t appear to be a parliamentary majority for any single outcome) but only the government can decide what happens next. Literally anything could happen but the most likely scenario is that the political pressure to avoid a no deal Brexit becomes too great from all sides, including from within the Conservative Party. The government could offer a referendum to break the impasse but this seems unlikely, given the commitments made by the Prime Minister against this and given the fact that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also opposes a referendum.
With both no deal and a referendum seemingly impossible the path of least political resistance will likely be to seek to delay the departure date, probably by requesting to extend article 50.
Extending article 50 doesn’t end the debate. It avoids no deal Brexit and whilst it extends the uncertainty it doesn’t provide a decisive win to either side. It allows everyone to live to fight another day.
However an extension is also extremely problematic. It doesn’t resolve any of the fundamental issues with Brexit. All it does is take the time pressure off and that itself is problematic for the government, as the time pressure and threat of no deal is the strongest tool the government has at the moment.
An extension based on giving the Prime Minister more time to get the deal through Parliament will be supported by the EU. Brussels has no wish to force Britain out without a deal and so will be accommodating. A short extension until July is therefore unlikely to be problematic from the EU side.
However it is unclear whether three extra months will change anything in London, the parliamentary arithmetic remains the same as do the choices in front of the government.
Therein lies a deeper problem. To extend Article 50 beyond July requires a leap of faith from the EU, as the UK would be obliged to hold European elections in May and elect MEPs for a potential five year term. To extend beyond July would therefore probably require a commitment to a second referendum or to a general election. That takes us back to square one as there is no majority in Parliament or settled will from the government to take either of those paths.
So the first three months of this year are going to be messy. Politics will be fast moving and at some stage hugely difficult decisions will have to be made both by the government and the opposition. The hard deadline of the 29th March is unprecedented in politics as it means the hard decisions can’t be put off any longer. However given that those decisions are so far reaching and so controversial within the main British political parties, it is safe to assume that some attempt will be made to put the decision off even longer.
At some stage this year though, those decisions will need to be made, and when they are they have the potential to completely realign British politics. 2019 will be a fascinating year, but my prediction is that by the end of it, the UK will have left the EU. How and in what circumstances are anyone’s guess.