Britain is currently scheduled to leave the European Union in less than three weeks—March 29—and its leaders have waited until the absolute last minute to figure out how that’s going to happen. This may be the week that will determine Britain’s economic future for decades to come—or they’ll just do it all again in a few months. Here’s a look at what’s coming.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s office says Parliament will hold another “meaningful” vote on her Brexit deal on Tuesday. But it’s not exactly clear what they’ll be voting on. The deal May negotiated with the EU on the future relationship between Britain and the union was rejected by a record-setting margin in January. The sticking point, then and now, had to do with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the U.K.’s only land border with Europe. In order to avoid a hard border with customs checks, which could jeopardize hard-won peace in the region, May’s deal included a “backstop” that would keep Britain in customs and regulatory alignment with Europe. This is not a popular idea, since one of the main reasons for leaving the EU is to avoid its regulations.
May has been trying to renegotiate the backstop since then. Late last week, the EU offered a plan that would allow Britain—with the exception of Northern Ireland—to unilaterally exit the customs union. May’s government said it was “not impressed” by the gesture. In particular, the idea is a nonstarter for members of the hard-line conservative Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party. Why does it matter so much what they think? Because back in the summer of 2017, May had the brilliant idea to call early elections to fortify her position, was thoroughly shellacked, and is now dependent on their votes to remain in office.
May is heading to Strasbourg for last-minute negotiations with EU leaders, but the mood is reportedly “bleak.” There are calls within her party for May to offer to resign if the deal is approved, in order to restore confidence in the government for future negotiations, though her office is rejecting those reports for now. Barring a miracle, May is likely in for another humiliating defeat on Tuesday.
If May’s deal is rejected again, Parliament will vote on Wednesday on whether to proceed with a “no-deal” Brexit on March 29, a plan economists warn would have a disastrous impact on the British economy and likely lead to imposition of a hard border in Ireland. This vote was announced two weeks ago and is a concession from May after three members of her party left to join a new centrist faction in protest of her “disastrous” handling of Brexit, which they say has been driven by hard-line euroskeptics. Those euroskeptics, particularly an influential faction known as European Research Group led by conservative Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, see no-deal as preferable to an arrangement that leaves Britain in a customs union with the EU. Still, there’s substantial opposition from moderate Tories to no-deal, so this is also likely to be defeated.
If no-deal is defeated, then a vote will be held Thursday on whether to ask the EU for an extension of Article 50, the mechanism under which Britain is withdrawing from the EU. Calling this vote is a major reversal for May, who had insisted dozens of times over the past few years that Brexit was happening on March 29, 2019, no matter what. A major uncertainty this week is whether she, as a member of Parliament, will vote for it.
An extension would require the approval of the other 27 member states of the EU. The expectation is that they would grumble but probably grant it. The current plan is to ask for a three-month extension since a new European Parliament will be seated in July, and Britain doesn’t want to participate in elections for it. But a longer extension is probably not out of the question. The concern is that the process will turn into what Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called a “rolling cliff edge” of continual extensions.
If an extension is granted, it will likely be followed by a series of further votes on alternative post-Brexit scenarios ranging from the soft “Norway model” to the hard “managed no-deal.” There are also likely to be calls for a new referendum on Brexit—though there is no majority for it in Parliament at the moment—or a new election.
Thursday’s will probably be the closest and most uncertain of the three votes. It seems absurd to think that Parliament would reject May’s deal, reject no-deal, then reject an extension, given that there’s no time left to try anything else. But this is Brexit. There’s no reason to think that absurdity won’t happen.