Brexit: The never-ending story

A lot has happened this week in the House of Commons regarding Brexit. Because all the possible Brexit scenarios still seem to be on the table, it is a good idea to give a quick overview of what has happened this week and, more importantly, what the next steps are.  

The week started relatively positive for Prime Minister Theresa May. On Monday 11 March, May and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker secured a last-minute legally binding joint instrument relating to the backstop of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. Crucially, May secured one key demand to ensure the backstop is not a permanent solution. The PM had hoped the agreed changes would be enough to convince MPs to pass the deal through the Parliament. Unfortunately, however, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox declared his legal advice would not change as the changes do not allow the UK to unilaterally quit the backstop.   

Quickly after Cox’s statement, both the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which props up May’s government in Westminster, and the European Research Group (ERG) of hardline Tory Brexiteers, indicated they would not be able to vote for the deal on 12 March. The second meaningful vote resulted, as expected, in another crushing defeat by 391 to 242 — a margin of 149 

As a result of the second rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement, MPs voted on 13 March whether or not to leave the EU without a deal. With an unexpected turn of events and a high level of drama, two votes took place: one that could temporarily wipe the “no deal” off the table and another that could indefinitely bury the idea. The Parliament was expected to vote against a Brexit without an agreement for the time being, but with a narrow majority of 4 votes, the Parliament also announced it would never want a hard Brexit. This represented another defeat for May as she wanted to temporarily ban the “no deal” scenario, but not take it off the table completely in order to keep leverage in negotiations. The votes are not legally binding however, and a hard Brexit remains on the table if no deal or extension can be agreed with the EU by 29 March. 

Yesterday, 14 March, UK Members of Parliament voted by a comfortable majority of 211 in favor of delaying Britain’s separation from the EU. The majority of Conservative MPs voted against the motion, including Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay. The question is: how long will the delay take? European Council President Donald Tusk already said that he prefers a longer Brexit extension so the UK would have enough time to seek national consensus. 

What is next? 

Next week, on 19 or 20 March, there will be a third meaningful vote in the House of Commons with Attorney General Geoffrey Cox expected to adapt his legal advice to say the UK can leave the backstop unilaterally. If the deal is accepted Theresa May will ask the EU for a technical extension until the end of June to implement Brexit at the European Council meeting on 21 March. If the deal is not approved she will ask for a longer extension, but in that case the question is : how long will the extension be and, consequently, will the UK participate in the next EU elections?