With barely two weeks to go to the Brexit deadline, the UK appears to be settling into a very complicated, and messy, situation. On Wednesday, March 13, the British parliament voted against a no-deal Brexit under any circumstance, 321 to 278. The decision is not legally binding, however. MPs will now vote on March 14 on whether the UK should ask the EU for permission to delay Brexit beyond the scheduled March 29 departure date.
Wednesday’s vote came a day after parliamentarians defeated Prime Minister Theresa May’s revised Brexit deal (391 to 242). This was her second attempt to get a Brexit deal passed. In January, May’s original deal was rejected by a 230-vote margin.
May made the following statement after the no-deal vote:
“The House has today provided a clear majority against leaving without a deal.
However, I will repeat what I have said before. This is about the choices that this House faces. The legal default in UK and EU law remains that the UK will leave the EU without a deal unless something else is agreed.
The onus is now on every one of us in this House to find out what that is.“
The Commons will now be required to take a new vote later today (March 14) to authorise May to seek an extension for the Brexit deadline under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
Almost as if in anticipation of such a request, a spokesperson for European Council President Donald Tusk said earlier this week: “Should there be a UK reasoned request for an extension, the EU27 will consider it and decide by unanimity. The EU27 will expect a credible justification for a possible extension and its duration. The smooth functioning of the EU institutions will need to be ensured.”
Echoing similar sentiments, a spokesperson for the European commission president conveyed Brussels’ “frustration” and dismay at UK’s failure to “lay down any groundwork over a potential extension, raising the risk that leaders could reject any request.”
Earlier this week
On Tuesday, March 12, the UK government rejected May’s latest version of the Brexit deal, a proposal that outlined the terms of the UK leaving the EU. After 391 MPs voted against the deal, the UK was left to decide if it was to leave the EU with a no-deal arrangement.
Before Tuesday’s vote, May said her new deal addressed the status of the only land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic known as the “Irish backstop”.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar also expressed his support for the revised deal.
However, only 242 lawmakers voted for it. The deal was defeated by 391 votes against.
“I profoundly regret the decision that this House has taken tonight”, said May.
Brexit and the ‘Irish backstop’
In a referendum held in 2016, the UK’s public voted to leave the European Union. This decision was commonly called “Brexit”.
Since then, lawmakers have negotiated on the terms of this withdrawal, including how much money the UK will pay the EU to dissolve its partnership and the future of UK citizens living in the EU.
However, on January 15, British MPs overwhelmingly rejected the first withdrawal deal. Even after May revised the deal, the House voted against it for the second time.
The main point of contention is the Irish backstop, a 500 km border that separates the UK and EU and Northern Ireland and the UK.
This border is not a hard one, meaning it does not have customs officials and checkpoints. Goods and services are traded freely between the UK and Ireland.
Both, the UK and EU want to preserve this soft border.
However, they have not managed to secure a binding deal because “Brexit” essentially means that UK will leave the EU customs union and single market.
In the event of a hard Irish border, goods and services that previously went unchecked will be inspected by customs in Ireland to ensure they meet EU standards.
A hard backstop concerned conservatives who fear that the UK economy will suffer in the customs arrangement because it will be forced to follow the EU’s rules without having a say.
This is also known as a ‘Hard Brexit’.
Such an arrangement also implies a separation between Ireland and the UK that will undermine the UK, a country that has already confronted an Irish call for self-governance.
BBC says, “Any separate status for Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK is seen as potentially damaging to the union as a whole.”
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that supports May’s conservative government has also objected to customs checks between Ireland and Britain.
Irish Prime Minister’s response
Varadkar had tried assuaging concerns about the backstop in the new deal.
He said, “We have insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement could not be rewritten & that the backstop arrangement, while intended to be temporary, must continue to apply unless and until it is replaced by future arrangements”.
He reiterated that May implemented legal assurances related to the backstop that neither completely rewrites the withdrawal deal nor undermines the border.
“Withdrawal Agreement represents a fair compromise by all sides… Further texts agreed y’day provide additional guarantees to eliminate fears that the goal of some was to trap the UK indefinitely in the backstop”, Varadkar tweeted.
However, Vadakar’s support did not change the tide as MPs shot down the deal.
After no-deal vote, what are the UK’s options?
The deadline for a Brexit deal is March 29. The European Court of Justice has said the UK can cancel Brexit entirely and remain in the EU, but May has passionately rejected that idea.
If a deal for leaving is not secured, EU laws will stop applying to the UK immediately, which will undoubtedly be chaotic and confusing.
This situation is called a “no-deal”, meaning the UK will be forced to exit the EU on March 29 without any pre-arranged terms and conditions.
But parliamentarians have voted against a no-deal Brexit under any circumstance. So what happens now?
The UK parliament will now vote on whether to delay the Brexit process beyond the March 29 deadline.
MPs will have to back an extension until June 30 in order to pass EU exit legislation.
For UK to successfully delay the deadline, May will have to make a formal request to the EU.
After the deadline is officially delayed, the UK will have more time to patch together a third deal, but it will be back to square one.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said following the no-deal vote that a delay to Brexit was “now inevitable”. He said his party plans to hold meetings across the aisle to “find a compromised solution that can command support in the House”, and that parliamentarians need to find a solution to “deal with the crisis” facing the UK and the “deep concerns” of the British public.
Corbyn has repeatedly called for a general election to oust May, saying she does not have the support of the people.
“The prime minister has run down the clock, and the clock has been run out on her. Maybe, it’s time instead we had a general election and the people could choose who their government should be,” Corbyn has said in the past.
A general election is certainly one of the options before the UK now. A general election could mean that the new House may have enough of a majority on either side to pass a deal.
The House can also initiate an early general election through a vote of no-confidence against May.
The UK can also consider holding a second referendum on Brexit, allowing the public a chance to change their minds on whether to leave the EU. But this is a highly complicated option.
For now, the UK parliament will vote on whether to delay Brexit. If passed, this will give the UK some bonus time to get itself out of this mess.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius.