After Parliament again failed to approve any of a wide variety of Brexit options in a series of votes Monday, Prime Minister Theresa May held seven hours of meetings with her Cabinet on Tuesday to try to figure out a way forward. May emerged from the meetings to make a public statement, in which she said, “This debate, this division, cannot drag on much longer. It is putting members of Parliament and everyone else under immense pressure and it is doing damage to our politics.”
The statement contained two major pieces of concrete news. Let’s take them separately.
Today’s extension: May said that the U.K. would “need a further extension of Article 50,” the legal mechanism under which countries exit the EU. As you may recall, the original two-year Article 50 deadline was March 29—Friday—but was then extended to April 12. As it stands now, if no deal is in place by the end of next week, Britain will exit the EU with no agreement on future economic relations with Europe.
May said that the extension should be “one that is as short as possible and which ends when we pass a deal.” She is still resisting calls to ask for a longer extension, which would require Britain to take part in European Union elections in May.
The U.K. doesn’t get an extension just by asking for one, though. EU leaders would still have to approve the request, and their patience is running thin. The last time the U.K. asked for an extension was in mid-March, when May requested three more months. The EU said it would only grant the extension if Parliament passed May’s withdrawal agreement, which did not happen. Given the deadlock in London, European leaders don’t want to keep granting new extensions and allow this to drag on forever.
In a statement this morning, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said that if Parliament won’t pass May’s deal, the only other options are a no-deal Brexit or a longer delay that would require Britain to take part in European Parliament elections. In a meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that there’s no guarantee the EU would even grant the longer delay. (Macron has taken to the role of Brexit Bad Cop with an impressive level of gusto.)
Still, in a tweet following May’s statement, European Commission President Donald Tusk seemed to suggest the EU would cooperate:
May also said in her statement that she was offering to “sit down with the leader of the opposition”—that would be Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn—“to try to agree a plan that we would both stick to.” The two of them could then present this plan to Parliament together. She said this plan would have to include the now-thrice-rejected withdrawal agreement she negotiated with the EU.
Is there any chance Labour would agree to this after voting against May’s deal three times? It’s possible.
Remember that the withdrawal agreement doesn’t actually define the future relationship between Britain and Europe—it sets out the terms under which that relationship will be negotiated. Corbyn has previously suggested that Labour might be willing to support the agreement if it included a permanent customs union between Britain and the EU to allow frictionless trade and avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. He also wants to see Britain stay in alignment with EU rules, which would likely include the freedom of movement for EU citizens into the U.K. May has previously ruled out these options, but all indications are that she’s now coming around to the idea of a much softer Brexit.
Hard-line Brexiteers will lose their minds if this turns out to be the deal: Shedding EU rules and regaining control of immigration were the big reasons for doing Brexit in the first place. Already, there are complaints that May has “handed the future decisions over Brexit to the Labour Party” and that the people didn’t vote for a “May-Corbyn coalition government.” Former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said Brexit is now becoming “soft to the point of disintegration.”
Corbyn, who has agreed to the talks, will be under pressure as well, from the growing ranks of voters and politicians demanding a “people’s vote” on whatever arrangement they work out. This offer could also be a way for May to shift some of the blame for a no-deal Brexit onto Labour if they can’t work anything out by April 12.
Today in ominous warnings: Barnier said in his speech Tuesday that a no-deal scenario is becoming more likely by the day. May, whose Cabinet is divided on whether to accept no-deal, said that “we could make a success of no-deal in the long term,” but she appears to be doing everything in her power to avoid that scenario.
The Spectator’s Katy Balls reports that ministers were given background reading for Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting that included “decisions that need to be taken soon regarding no-deal preparations.” These included the possibility of London reasserting direct rule over Northern Ireland, as was the case during the late-20th century Troubles, and potentially recalling troops from overseas to prepare for the possibility of unrest. Perhaps, as May suggests, the long term would work out, but the short term sounds pretty scary.
Today’s reality check: The New York Times’ Peter Goodman writes that “for much of the business world, Britain’s departure from the European Union has effectively happened,” noting that multinational financial services companies and auto manufacturers have already cut back on investment in the country, in anticipation of it losing its status as a hub for trade with Europe. The article cites estimates that the British economy is now 1 percent to 2.5 percent smaller than it would have been without Brexit and that the pound has lost more than 10 percent of its value against the dollar since the referendum.
Ironically, the impact of this lost investment could fall most heavily on the manufacturing-dependent communities that voted in high numbers for Brexit.
Days left until next deadline: 10
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