Brexit Brief: Brussels, We Have a Problem

Posted on 15th March 2019

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The UK parliament expressed a clear will to delay Britain’s exit from the European Union – though a formal request from the UK still needs filing, UK law still needs changing and 27 European leaders still need to approve. By Brexit standards, those are all quite easy obstacles. In a tumultuous week, the prime minister suffered a second defeat of her deal, simultaneously losing her authority in London and credibility in Brussels. Oh, and we don’t know how long we’ll extend article 50 for yet. Let’s rewind.

Fool me twice

MPs again rejected May’s deal on Tuesday evening, with most opposing the terms on the Northern Irish backstop. There was a glimmer of hope for the prime minister after she gained last-minute concessions (or ‘reassurances’, as the EU pointedly described them), including the right for the UK to suspend the backstop if it can demonstrate the EU is acting in bad faith. This was insufficient, however, for the Attorney General – who supported the deal – to change his legal advice, which still read that there was legally a risk of being stuck in the backstop indefinitely. While May lost by a smaller margin than the first time, the criticism of hard Brexit rebels and the near-total lack of Labour support left her very little chance.

No to no deal

After rejecting one deal, the House of Commons rejected the prospect of leaving the EU on 29 March with no deal on Wednesday, prompting last night’s vote for a delay. The prime minister was little more than a bystander in this vote, being unable to enforce a collective government position on her motion against no deal.  When an amendment passed to make her rejection of this option even more emphatic, she failed even to persuade her cabinet to resist an amendment to make a rejection of no-deal even more emphatic.  The prime minister ended the day opposing something, in substance, she had asked MPs to vote for.

Yes to delay, though not yet

To top off the drama from the day before, MPs voted to extend the Brexit deadline for three months with a deal, or longer without, this time with up to eight Cabinet ministers voting against their own motion – including Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, who had urged the Commons to vote for it.  To find out how long the UK will ask for, MPs will be asked to vote one more time on the exact deal they’d rejected just a week before on Tuesday.  A formal request at the European Council on 21/22 March will be forthcoming, length to be determined. As history often repeats itself, Brexit Brief readers can expect the deal to be defeated again next week.  Although, the margin will likely come down from the historic 149. No need to worry – the drama is not coming to an end anytime soon.

EU asks – delay for what?

The EU has been open, if begrudgingly so, to an extension, but not wanting to waste any more time on Brexit than necessary, they have told the UK government it must be conditional. EU leaders said a delay must be for preparing for no deal, implementing a deal, or holding some new election or referendum to change strategy – in other words a softer Brexit. If the UK wants to delay Brexit day past May, they will be required to further complicate the process and paradoxically hold European Parliament elections. While it is highly unlikely that an EU leader would veto the extension – the decision must be unanimous – they made it clear that this won’t be the first delay of many.

What next?

Theresa May will try another go to her deal either on Monday or Tuesday, if the Speaker of the House of Commons allows her to do so. If unsuccessful, EU leaders will meet on 21-22 March to discuss the extension. With 14 days to go (perhaps) and no certainty whatsoever on how the UK will leave the EU, Brexit Brief readers can expect another busy week.

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