British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal has suffered another historic defeat in the House of Commons; this time, largely due to the efforts of Conservative backbench European Research Group (ERG), which encouraged 66 Tories to abstain from the vote.
Business Minister Richard Harrington accused the Eurosceptic ERG of “treachery”, while ERG’s Steve Baker called the loss a “storm in a teacup” after MPs voted down the motion, endorsing government’s strategy, by 303 to 258. This, now, leaves May with even fewer options, as Britain’s withdrawal from the EU looms closer.
According to a report by The Times last month, “The prime minister’s allies believe she needs the backing of about 20 Labour MPs for a modified agreement to offset the number of Tory rebels, even if she wins the DUP’s support. Potential Labour backers are now being wooed with the promise of local investment, as Downing Street increases efforts to build a parliamentary majority before a second vote.”
The main point of division, however, remains the Irish backstop.
Why is ERG’s stance detrimental?
Although members of both liberal and conservative camps opposed the government motion, which called for MPs to back its existing strategy (with amendments to the backstop) on Thursday, ERG’s strategies and reasons for doing so are questionable.
The government is livid with the ERG for stalling and voting against May’s deal for appearing to rule out a no-deal Brexit, which ERG backbenchers don’t want to endorse.
According to various news reports, ERG members, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, think the option of leaving the EU without a formal deal can give Britain “negotiating leverage” in Brussels.
What does a no-deal Brexit mean?
Most MPs believe that a no-deal Brexit would cause chaos at ports and massive disruption to business and economy. The legislative reality, too, looks grim and reeks of a race against time.
“The government is also behind on secondary legislation. Despite a major push from government departments, only 100-odd of the 600 statutory instruments required for a no-deal Brexit have made their way through parliament. It is yet to table almost half of them,” the Institute for Government (IfG) claims.
As the prospect of a no-deal Brexit looms closer, the IfG has produced a damning report looking at the government’s preparedness for it. “It looks increasingly unlikely that the prime minister will be able to get the six outstanding Brexit bills through parliament in time. Some of the major bills have still not started their Lords stages—where the government does not control time,” it notes.
What’s next for May?
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay met EU ambassadors in London on flying to Brussels on Monday to negotiate further with EU’s Michel Barnier.
May will likely continue renegotiating the Irish backstop with the EU, after MPs voted to replace it with “alternative arrangements” earlier this month.
The latest government defeat has no legal force, reports BBC, and May will trudge on with negotiations with Brussels in the coming days. According to the PM’s spokesperson, the latest loss represented “more of a hiccup than the disaster that is being reported”.
May will reportedly continue to seek certain legally binding changes to the backstop that will enable parliament to support the deal. She is likely to insist to EU leaders that her defeat in parliament on Thursday does not change her belief that her Brexit deal can still achieve a majority, as long as there are changes to the backstop.
She had earlier agreed to lay an amendable motion by February 15, in the event that she brought back a revised deal on February 13 and it was rejected.
On Friday, May’s spokeswoman said the previous vote in January, where MPs passed an amendment demanding alternative arrangements replace the backstop and rejected the possibility of a no-deal, was the only one that had spelt out, in concrete terms, what parliament would feasibly accept.
What’s the Irish backstop?
The backstop is a clause in the Brexit deal to maintain an open Irish border. May agreed to it during negotiations with the EU but has not been able to convince enough British MPs to back the clause.
Those who reject the backstop fear it won’t just be a temporary measure if no future trade deal is agreed; they are afraid it could result in the UK staying in the EU customs union permanently.
Last month, the House of Commons voted for May to return to Brussels and re-open negotiations in order to secure a “legally binding change” to the backstop.
Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose support props up May’s majority in the House, welcomed the announcement. “From day one … we rejected the backstop and argued for legally binding change within the withdrawal agreement,” he said.
The Irish government has firmly refused to allow any renegotiation of the backstop or return to the borders of the past. The EU, too, has ruled out further negotiations on the withdrawal deal, which now hinges on this clause.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, has already said the EU will not abandon the backstop. He added, “Ireland’s border is Europe’s border, and it’s our union’s priority.”
Where does Brexit leave international students?
Labour MP Wes Streeting said last month that Brexit would leave the country worse off and result in the government having less money to spend.
The Department for Education in January out with its no-deal advice note to universities to outline eligibility for study and student loans, for EU citizens already in the UK and those eyeing British universities after Brexit.
According to the document, “Entitlement to student finance and home fees status for EU students starting a course at an English institution in academic years after the 2019 to 2020 academic year, is under consideration.” This means in case of delay, universities may be able to recruit EU-based students and offer home tuition fees backed by student loans for at least one more year.
Schools have been told that hiring teachers from abroad will get more difficult because their qualifications may not be automatically recognised.
Students and faculty members will also need to be mindful of a number of issues, including passport duration, when planning travel to EU countries for conferences or trips.
What it means for Indian expats, students, and tourists
UK government’s post-Brexit visa and immigration strategy is being hailed as the biggest shake-up in overseas migration in 40 years. According to a white paper tabled in parliament last December, it would necessarily put Indian students, workers, and tourists at par with those hailing from the 27 EU countries.
A new visa route for skilled migrants and removal of the 20,700 cap on work permits are among the proposals expected to come into force in 2021, contingent upon the Brexit completion process.
The automatic right to move and work in the UK, which professionals and low-skilled workers from the EU enjoyed thus far, will also be distributed equally, in a merit-based system, amongst all applicants, irrespective of their country of origin. This will be especially beneficial for Indians, who received 55% of the skilled visas in 2018.
Indian students stand to profit handsomely from the Brexit deal as UK’s leading universities look forward to recruiting more overseas students, particularly from China and India, to compensate for the financial challenges and fall in income post-Brexit. Presently, India sends the fourth-highest number of students to Britain.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.