Stockholm (Ekonamik) – After two years of talks and two weeks to go until the UK is set to leave the European Union, this remarkable week of three successive key Brexit votes brought no clear answers and still more questions. The closer March 29 looms, the further away Brexit seems.
Mrs May had sought to make the first vote Tuesday on her Brexit deal (and the second overall) conditional on the EU accepting the changes the UK is seeking to the agreement. She left Monday evening for an 11th hour meeting in Strasbourg with EC President Jean-Claude Juncker in a final bid to secure a change to her Brexit deal ahead of the critical vote Tuesday.
Mrs May’s deal sets out the divorce settlement Britain will pay, allows for a two-year transition period in which things remain essentially the same in terms of trade, migration, security and travel, and seeks a guarantee to preserve the free and open border in Ireland. This question of the “Irish backstop” has proven to be the dealbreaker, with Brexiteers objecting that it would limit the UK’s sovereignty and require them to abide by EU rules on customs and trade “indefinitely”.
Following the meeting with Mr Juncker, Mrs May told Parliament that she had secured “legally binding” assurances that would guarantee the UK would not be tied to EU regulations “indefinitely”, even if no agreement is to be had in the future as to how else the Irish border would be kept free and open. The assurances were made as the EU’s final offer. “There will be no new negotiations,” Mr Juncker said on Monday. “It is this.”
But ahead of Tuesday’s vote, an opinion from Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, dealt a further blow to Mrs May’s chances of securing the vote. While the “legally binding” assurances reduced “the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained within the protocol’s provisions,” he said, Britain would have “no internationally lawful means of exiting the protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement” with the EU.
Mr Cox’s comments were seized upon by the Hard Brexit factions in the Conservative party as evidence that Mrs May’s deal essentially remained unchanged. In addition, the Democratic Unionist Party, the small Northern Irish party that Mrs May relies on for her working majority, released a statement saying it would not support the deal due to “lack of significant progress” as Mrs May spoke to Parliament on Tuesday.
The Labour party also advised its members to vote against the revised Brexit deal. It was overwhelmingly rejected by parliament in the March 12 vote by 391 to 242, setting up Wednesday’s vote on whether the U.K. would leave the EU without a Brexit deal.
Mrs May’s motion to rule out a no-deal Brexit passed by 321 votes to 278 on March 13, but not before MPs backed an amendment rejecting a no-deal Brexit under any circumstance, leading Mrs May to order her own MPs to vote against her own motion, further undermining her authority within her own party and increasing the likelihood of snap elections.
But the most drama, as if there hadn’t yet been enough, was reserved for the final vote on Thursday, March 14. The motion to extend Brexit beyond March 29, which Mrs May had been forced to agree to as her Brexit plan was defeated for the second time on Tuesday, passed by 413 votes to 202. That motion stipulated that if a Brexit plan could be agreed by March 20, Article 50 could be extended until June 30, and if not, could involve an indefinite longer period and the rather absurd notion of the UK taking part in the European elections in May.
This, however, depends on whether the EU will agree to even a short extension, which is contingent on Mrs May presenting a clear rationale for it. As it stands, yet a third vote on Mrs May’s already twice-rejected Brexit plan will be held early next week, probably on Tuesday, March 19.
Despite arguably carrying the day by securing yet another vote for her deal, Mrs May’s authority was further eroded Thursday by a number of additional amendment votes. These included a cross-party amendment (the “Benn amendment”) seeking to make the Commons central to the Brexit process, which failed by a very narrow 312 votes to 314, an amendment to the Benn amendment to add a time limit of end June for any Brexit delay, which was defeated 314 votes to 311, and an amendment to the main government motion for a second Brexit referendum, which was voted down by 85 votes to 334 (among others).
Brexit is now likely to be delayed, assuming the EU member states provide unanimous consent, which remains likely. The question now is how, and by how much. If Mrs May’s Brexit plan is agreed by March 20 next week, there will be a brief extension until June 30, allowing the necessary legislation to pass. If there is no agreement on the deal, the extension to Article 50 will likely be extended indefinitely. The thing to watch for next week will be whether the Hard Brexit contingent of Mrs May’s majority responsible for sinking her deal twice can stomach such an extension – in which anything could happen, including a rejection of Brexit proper.
Video: Order! MPs reject May’s Brexit deal for second time by majority of 149 (The Guardian/YouTube)