Brexit Briefing 78: Charting a new path?

Path

For the last two years, this was due to be the week when the UK left the European Union. As such, the fact that the British Parliament was still voting to indicate what that departure should look like was extraordinary in its own right. That none of those Brexit options received a majority was even more extraordinary.

Barring a surprise victory for the Prime Minister in the third meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement on Friday (at the time of writing this vote had not taken place), the UK will be no closer to articulating a settled position on its post-Brexit relations on its scheduled departure date than it was on the day after the referendum in 2016. 

This week was as eventful as the previous ones and it started with an amendment that gave the Parliament the ability to take over the Brexit process. The amendment, tabled by Conservative MP Oliver Letwin, passed by 329 votes to 302. It led to a series of indicative votes on Wednesday that set out a range of possible Brexit alternatives.

Two years after Article 50 was triggered, this was the first time that parliament entered into a serious debate about what the possible Brexit options could be. The options laid before the House included the UK staying in the EU's single market, joining the European Free Trade Association, (EFTA) forming a customs union with the EU, a no-deal Brexit, a Canada-style free trade agreement, a second referendum or revoking article 50 and rescinding Brexit altogether.

Norway

These votes would have carried some political weight but a slew of extensions across the House meant they carried a lot less. In any case, they are not legally binding on the government. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the options were supported. The customs union came closest, losing by only 8 votes, however the proposal for a referendum gained the backing of the highest number of MPs, despite also losing.

So the Parliament has no clear path forward. It has rejected both leaving the EU without a deal, and the PM’s deal that has been negotiated with the EU. It has also rejected the various options which would allow the UK to remain in the EU.

This is fast becoming a significant political crisis as a result. The initial March 29th deadline should have focused minds and forced parliamentarians to decisively choose a path forward. However the delay to April 12th and the prospect of further delays mean that there is less urgency to make a decisive choice between a variety of imperfect options. As a result everyone is retreating back into their comfort zone of voting against imperfect options and avoiding the tough choice of having to vote for something imperfect - as all the choices ultimately are.

Against this vacuum, the Prime Minister plans to bring the Withdrawal Agreement alone back to the House of Commons later today (Friday). It will not include the political declaration which outlines the future trade relations, instead focusing only on the withdrawal issues of the budget, citizens rights and the Northern Irish backstop.

This allows the vote to get around the ruling from the speaker, John Bercow, which said that MPs cannot vote for a third time on the same legislative proposal and that any new vote on the deal should be “substantially different”.

EU leaders have made a successful passing of the withdrawal agreement a key condition to get an article 50 extension until the 22nd May. This extension is needed to pass the necessary domestic legislation needed to enact Brexit in UK law.

If it fails to pass, the UK could either leave without a deal on the 12th April or, more likely, have a long extension which includes European elections.

In order to try to rally more support for her deal, the Prime Minister this week offered her resignation if the Withdrawal Agreement passes through the Commons. She will resign on the 22nd May in that case and therefore another Prime Minister will lead the negotiations on the future relationship. What is not clear however, is what will happen if the vote does not go through and a long delay is looking likely.

Without Labour support it looks unlikely that the deal will go through as the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) remains opposed to the deal on the grounds that it will impose barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The Labour position however is also unlikely to move. This is despite Labour’s official policy being that the UK remains in a customs union with the EU. The withdrawal deal very much points towards a customs union as the final outcome, not least because of the challenges surrounding the Irish border. Labour’s position therefore has very little to do with the content of the deal and a lot to do with partisan British politics. It is practically impossible for the Labour Party to back a Tory negotiated deal, even if it is more or less the same deal that a Labour Prime Minister would have brought back.

QuarterEU

What happens next? If the deal fails a third time, then another emergency Brexit summit will be held in Brussels in two weeks time to chart a possible new path forward. Sources close to Martin Selmayr, the European Commission’s top civil servant, say the EU executive would like to “force” the UK into a long Article 50 extension. That would be problematic as the UK would have to participate in the forthcoming European election - almost certainly a condition that will be set in return for allowing the British government to avoid the cliff edge once more -- but more crucially the UK could have to pay into the next EU budget cycle, which starts next year. Meanwhile, ambassadors in Brussels reportedly agreed their negotiating position in the event of a no deal, which remains the legal default. They were reported to insist that the UK still would have to settle its outstanding financial liabilities that it had incurred whilst still a member of the EU, and also that it would still have sign up the backstop. Given the fact that the political backlash against the backstop is the key reason why a no deal is possible in the first place, it is incredibly tone deaf of the EU to think that the UK would sign up to it even in the event of no deal.

It is also worth noting that the PM’s offer to quit does not shift or change the fundamental issues or how to solve them. It appears the EU will refuse to offer any further flexibility on the withdrawal agreement. A lengthy extension may allow the UK to rethink its strategy if there is insufficient backing for the PM’s deal. The risk is that the longer the process goes on is that a no Brexit scenario becomes more likely unless the House of Commons can agree on a way forward. For now, the only thing left that parliament is united on are its opposition to the backstop and the withdrawal agreement and its opposition to no deal. Without a change to the numbers, it is becoming much more likely that some kind of public vote will need to be called to break that deadlock, most likely a general election.

Nearly three years after the Brexit referendum, MPs are still unclear about what kind of Brexit they want - or even whether they want it at all.

However, as I have suggested previously, there are still only three options - : the PM’s deal, no deal or no Brexit. That basic choice still hasn’t changed and even if the UK ends up with an extension, sooner or later one of those three options has to be chosen.