That sound you hear is the clock ticking. The United Kingdom will cease to be a member of the European Union on March 29. Or maybe not. Perhaps with a formal Withdrawal Agreement. Or maybe not.
What is the fate of Brexit? After a dizzying array of votes in the House of Commons this week, the answer to that question remains as elusive as ever.
This week was supposed to decide the fate of the Withdrawal Agreement that Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the EU at the end of last year. That 500-page agreement, designed to provide for an orderly withdrawal as the basis for a new relationship, included legal protections for maintaining trade and regulatory relations for a transitional period of about two years, as well as an agreement on how much Britain needs to pay to settle its outstanding obligations to the Union, and also a “backstop” agreement to guarantee that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland should remain as open as it has been since the completion of the historic Good Friday agreement of 1998.
The House of Commons rejected that agreement last January by the largest margin against a government proposal in the history of the British parliament. This past Tuesday, after Prime Minister May survived a no-confidence motion and traveled to Brussels in search of anything she could identify as a further concession from the EU in order to win over her critics, Commons rejected it again, by a slightly smaller but no less embarrassingly decisive margin.
After rejecting the only concrete withdrawal agreement on offer, Commons then reconvened on Wednesday to reject any plan to leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement. The rejection of a “no deal Brexit” was closer than the other votes, 312-308, but delivered a blow to those particularly enthusiastic Brexiteers who feel it is better to leave all at once than to make any concessions at all to Brussels.
Has anything substantially changed as a result of these votes? Well, yes and no.
The basic facts remain the same. Ever since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, the British public has been on record favoring Brexit. The March 29 deadline exists because PM May chose formally to declare the British plan to leave according to Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March 2017, triggering a two-year negotiating period. Hence the ticking clock.
In the June 2017 general election, which May called in the vain hope of expanding her majority, both major parties committed themselves to making Brexit a realty. In neither case has anyone been particularly clear on the ultimate terms Brexit would take. Theresa May’s bold, empty, and tautological declaration that “Brexit means Brexit” collapsed in the face of laborious negotiations of the Withdrawal Agreement, which exposed deep divisions within her own Tory Party. Not one but two Ministers of the Department for Exiting the EU (DexEU) resigned in protest over the deal, as has Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and a variety of junior ministers. Meanwhile, the Labour opposition, itself divided on the question of Brexit, is led by Jeremy Corbyn, who has opposed British membership in Europe since the 1970s, and thus is in no position either to offer help to the government or provide any real clarity on their future plans.
There are many voters and MPs across party lines (48% of the voters in June 2016, and, depending upon which poll you prefer, up to 58% of the current British electorate) who never wanted to leave the EU. They continue to fantasize about using the current deadlock to pass some sort of “people’s vote,” a second referendum that might reverse the decision of 2016, or at least allow the people to select a particular plan for departure. Neither of the major parties, however, has been willing to question the legitimacy of the 2016 referendum. As a result, the primary issue at hand is not whether the UK will leave the EU, but the terms of that departure. This has proven more difficult to define than had been promised, though no less difficult than has been predicted by those who realized unwinding a forty-year relationship would not be easy. As Pascal Lamy, the former head of the World Trade Organization has famously commented, “It’s not easy making an egg out of an omelet.”
What has changed is the amount of time left to come up with a coherent plan. Contrary to the hopes and dreams of many in London who imagined that European dissension and a rush to secure good relations with a newly sovereign Britain would allow the UK to leave the EU with minimal or no cost, the twenty-seven members of the EU held firm in defense of their mutual interests. Especially infuriatingly for the English nationalists who make up the hard core Brexiteers, the EU has stood by Ireland in its demands for protections of its open border, and insisted that any withdrawal agreement include the backstop. For perhaps the first time in history, Ireland has strong and reliable allies against English demands. Furthermore, the EU offered an object lesson in how membership in the organization can indeed protect the interests of relatively small and weak states.
Hammered out over many months, and then hailed by both May and her EU counterparts as the best that could be expected, the Withdrawal Agreement has suffered the fate of so many compromises on difficult questions: it has been attacked from both sides. After failing to satisfy both those who wanted Britain to stay and those who want to leave without making any concessions, it has been unable to find a parliamentary majority.
In the run-up to this week’s votes, advocates for different positions offered several solutions. Hard-core Brexiteers lobbied for no deal at all; simply allow the March 29 deadline to happen, and let the chips fall where they may. Britain will have regained its sovereignty , and the ecstasy of liberation will make up for any practical difficulties in the elimination of existing arrangements. That position is far from a majority, however. Even Prime Minister May, who has insisted on “red lines” that especially include an end to free movement of Europeans to Britain has realized that Britain’s future relationship with Europe cannot be built on the ashes of previous relationships.
After a two-day voting marathon, in which members walked through the voting galleries nearly ten times on various amendments, however, the House of Commons rejected both a second referendum and the idea of a no-deal Brexit—though the latter vote is moot since failure to agree to a deal before the deadline makes No Deal the default setting.
The only thing the footsore deputies could agree on with a clear majority (412-202), like ill-prepared students throughout history, is to seek a delay in the Brexit deadline.
Asking for an extension and getting one, of course, are two different things. Any extension of the Article 50 deadline requires the unanimous approval of all EU member states. Fortunately for the Prime Minister, many European leaders want to avoid the catastrophe of a no-deal and would look favorably on a limited extension to allow for further negotiations, even if no one knows exactly what is supposed to be negotiated. Unfortunately for her, some strident Euroskeptics have been visiting European countries governed by other Euroskeptic right-wing parties such as Italy and Poland to lobby them to veto any extension and secure a no-deal Brexit. (The irony that politicians who decry the damage to British sovereignty by “Brussels” and “European meddling” would encourage this sort of meddling in the political fate of Britain is as apparent as it is irrelevant to those whose hatred of the EU trumps all other principles.)
In either case, an extension would depend upon the time limit. Should it be thirty days to allow more negotiations, or several months, which would allow for a new referendum or a new British general election? Those latter options seem unlikely, since they would collide with the European Parliament elections scheduled for May 23-26. One could not expect the British to elect members to a parliament they plan to leave, after all.
The EU27—that is, leaders of Britain’s future former EU partners— will gather in Rumania for a European Council summit on March 21. May also reportedly hopes to bring her plan up for one more vote in Parliament before then. One can hope that meeting will provide some clarity. Though if the Brexit drama has taught us anything, it should be that clarity is as elusive as the definition of Brexit, and no amount of hopeful whistling past the geopolitical graveyard can quite drown out the sound of the ticking clock.