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Theresa May and the EU have a Brexit deal. What’s next?

The many possible Brexit outcomes, explained.

European Leaders Meet To Sign Off Brexit Agreement
Prime Minister Theresa May in Brussels on November 25.
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

British Prime Minister Theresa May and the European Union have a Brexit deal, a historic agreement that lays out the terms of the United Kingdom’s breakup with the bloc.

The other 27 EU member-states finalized and approved the withdrawal agreement at a summit in Brussels this Sunday. But the process is far from over: May must now get a deeply divided UK Parliament to approve the plan.

Hostility for the deal has been building for nearly two weeks, ever since May first unveiled the proposed agreement.

The most vocal resistance comes from the prime minister’s own Conservative Party, a fractured mess of loyalists and hardline “Brexiteers” who want a more decisive break with the European Union. The opposition Labour Party has also said it will resist the deal. Right now, at least, the withdrawal agreement doesn’t seem to have the votes.

This standstill could push everyone toward a “no deal” Brexit, the “cliff edge” scenario that would be bad for the EU, and likely catastrophic for Britain. Planes would be grounded, ports would be clogged, food would rot, and garbage would pile up, and those are just some of the possible scenarios.

May’s future is riding on the agreement, as well. At a Sunday press conference, she warned that a failed deal would lead to division and uncertainty. That includes her own job, which is far from secure as she faces pushback from all sides.

Amid this political turmoil, Brexit’s March 29, 2019, deadline inches ever closer. Here’s a look at some possible outcomes as May prepares to test her deal in Parliament.

The current state of play in the UK

To recap, May introduced a Brexit proposal on November 14 after months of back-and-forth with EU leaders.

This lengthy agreement tackles some of the critical issues in the forthcoming EU-UK break-up, specifically the divorce settlement (how much the UK must pay the EU, which is likely at least £39 billion, or about $50 billion) and the post-Brexit status of UK citizens and EU nationals living in the EU and UK, respectively. It also includes the Irish “backstop,” ensuring that the politically sensitive border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU country) remains open, even if the UK and EU don’t finalize border details in a post-Brexit deal.

The withdrawal agreement also calls for a 21-month transition period until December 31, 2020, to give the EU and the UK time to figure out their future relationship, the hard details of the trade, security cooperation, and more. (The transition can be renewed one time for up to two years.) A political declaration lays out the broad outlines for this arrangement.

The details of these plan were largely finalized on Sunday, when the 27 EU member states signed off on the deal in Brussels. The European Parliament will also need to formally approve the agreement at some point. But first it’s got to get ratified by the UK Parliament.

And this is promising to be difficult because every political camp within the UK has found something to hate in this agreement.

May’s plan, briefly, is an attempt at a “soft” Brexit compromise, but even those who favor closer alignment with the EU don’t love this deal. They see this deal as severing too many ties to EU, leaving Britain weaker and worse off economically than it was before.

The hardline “Brexiteers” in her party are virulently opposed — though it’s unlikely they’d be pleased by any deal. They see May’s deal as preventing the UK from reclaiming control of its borders and laws, and blocking it from making trade deals with other countries. Under May’s deal, the UK will also still have to follow EU customs rules for a period of time, but will lose its decision-making power in the bloc.

Then there’s Labour, the opposition party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Labour has its own disagreements about Brexit within the party, but it has collectively rejected May’s deal, saying it doesn’t meet their required pillars for a satisfactory Brexit. The party also sees this as an opportunity: If May and her deal implode, it might put them closer to regaining control of the government.

There’s pushback from other corners, including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a party from Northern Ireland. The DUP’s partnership with the Tories is keeping May in power. This party has resisted the deal; they object to the Irish border backstop plan because it would apply different rules to Northern Ireland, compared to the rest of the UK.

The bottom line: Few are satisfied with this compromise, because the UK is splintered between those who want out of the EU and those who never wanted to leave in the first place. No side actually “wins” with this deal.

And May’s own government is divided on the plan. After she secured cabinet approval of her draft deal last week, two top Cabinet ministers quit in protest the next day, including her Brexit secretary. (Several other junior members also stepped down.) It’s a sign the divisions within Britain are deep enough to derail whatever May brings home from Brussels.

The UK Parliament could approve the deal ... at some point

The UK Parliament will vote on the Brexit deal in mid-December. May needs 320 votes to pass the agreement, but it’s not clear yet if she will have the support.

Back in 2017, May tried to shore up support for Brexit negotiations by calling snap elections. Her plan backfired, and May’s Conservative Party ended up losing the majority, and formed a minority government with the DUP, whose 10 votes it needed to retain power.

The DUP said May has broken her promise on Brexit, and seems unlikely to support the deal.

As many as 51 Conservative party members have said they wouldn’t vote for a previous “soft” Brexit plan, but the number of total defectors right now is unclear. May’s cabinet will try to whip votes, though that won’t likely convince the hardcore Brexiteers.

It seems likely May will need to peel off some Labour votes in order to get her deal passed. (Labour has broadly rejected the deal, but there’s still a chance that some MPs could break off and support it.)

So while it’s too early to say May’s deal is headed for defeat, it’s definitely not looking great.

At least on the first try. Experts say if the Brexit deal gets voted down in December, there’s a chance May might be able to try again, especially if the financial markets or businesses freak out at the prospect no-deal scenario.

In other words: The UK will have to be pushed to the brink to get Parliament to finally act.

Which is why some observers say this deal might eventually pass — but maybe not until the second try. If the markets react severely, members of Parliament may be cowed into going “back and take a second look” at the deal, according to Spencer Boyer, a senior fellow with the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.

May could step aside after a leadership challenge from her Conservative party

Pro-Brexit Conservative MPs led the charge to oust May last week. Their efforts have since stalled, but at least 26 Tories confirmed they submitted letters of no confidence against May last week, arguing her handling of Brexit has made her unfit to lead.

At least 48 MPs must turn in letters to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, the Conservatives’ parliamentary group, to trigger a “no confidence” vote within the party. May needs a majority — 158 Tory MPs — to survive. If she loses, she’d have to step aside. If she defeats the challenge, she can’t be challenged by her party for 12 months.

The rebellion against May fizzled out, as it appeared her opponents overestimated their support and couldn’t reach the 48-letter threshold.

But the threat could be revived now that May has finalized the deal, as the pro-Brexit crowd isn’t likely to stop agitating against her.

Yet the schisms within May’s own Conservative party could ultimately protect her from a leadership challenge. “The reason she’s managed to last has been that there isn’t a clear alternative [to her],” Simon Usherwood, a professor at the University of Surrey and deputy director of an independent Brexit think tank, told me.

In other words, the pro-Brexit and pro-European wings of her party fear May’s replacement could be far more opposed to their positions. “Nobody feels entirely sure that if they got rid of her they would get ... someone who’s more favorable and supportive of what they want,” Usherwood added.

The UK manages to get a Brexit deadline extension

In March 2017, May formally triggered Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. That set off a two-year countdown to the formal Brexit deadline of March 29, 2019.

If her Brexit deal fails in Parliament, that could push the UK closer to the brink of a devastating no-deal Brexit. But the UK might try to finagle an extension, arguing it needs more time to approve a deal, or negotiate more concessions, or buy time in the case of political uncertainty, such as a leadership change.

There’s no guarantee the EU would go for this. The complications are many, including upcoming EU parliamentary elections in May. And European leaders have said it’s this deal or no deal, so it seems highly unlikely they’d consider going back to the negotiating table.

The UK could hold a second referendum

The idea of a second referendum, or a “people’s vote” on Brexit, has been percolating for a while. Perhaps years of Brexit drama has been enough to change some people’s minds, or the public could solve the gridlock in Parliament, the thinking goes.

But how to get a second referendum — or what it would look like — is complicated. May said she would not call for one, so barring any last-minute about face or leadership change, it’s unlikely to happen. It would also be a near-impossible feat to hold a campaign before the March 29, and would probably require begging the EU for an Article 50 extension.

There’s also the fact that a second referendum would likely be messy. It’s not clear what the referendum would ask. Would it be a test of May’s Brexit deal versus no-deal? Would it involve multiple choices — leave, stay, or take the deal? Would it be a do-over of the original 2016 “leave” versus “remain,” which will still disappoint at least half of a bitterly divided country and not necessarily change the outcome?

Some Labour MPs are pushing to have a vote on a second referendum, but Corbyn has declined to come out strongly in favor. “It’s an option for the future, but it’s not an option for today,” Corbyn said over the weekend.

Proponents of the second referendum who see it as a Brexit out might be deluding themselves, too. “The last two national votes we’ve had haven’t gone the way that people thought they would,” Usherwood said. “So do you really want to open up a huge amount of uncertainty?”

May’s government could fall apart

May currently faces a leadership challenge within her own party. But if MPs turn against her in Parliament, that could throw the entire government into turmoil.

The DUP sent a few warning shots, refusing to support Conservative legislation twice last week to pressure May on a better Brexit deal. May needs DUP’s 10 votes to stay in power; if they defect from her government, the Conservatives lose a majority. That could lead to a no-confidence vote in Parliament, potentially triggering general elections.

Labour, meanwhile, has been pushing for new elections — and there’s always a chance they could get them if May’s deal blows up badly enough in Parliament, or her government crumbles. “Labour’s top priority is to get back in power,” Boyer told me.

Nobody really knows what will happen

A second referendum or a new general election seems implausible now. But Brexit’s one promise is to be unpredictable.

What happened in Brussels this weekend means it’s now up to the United Kingdom to decide whether to accept this divorce deal, or not. And European leaders have made clear that it’s this deal, or no deal at all.

“This is the best deal for the UK, the best deal for Europe, this is the only deal possible,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Sunday.

Erik Jones, the director of European and Eurasian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told me that even if MPs object to this premise, or vote down the deal believing there’s a better one to be had, there’s not much more Europe can give that will sway the ideologues on either side.

“You’re not going to get any significant concessions,” he said. “If you think that there’s any silver bullet that could change the minds of enough members of the British Parliament having voted it down once, it just ain’t there.”

Looming over these debates is the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. The economic and logistical pain of crashing out of the EU may be enough to push MPs to accept an imperfect Brexit deal. “Everyone’s made a lot of noise and has been unhappy about this, that and the other, but they haven’t been able to agree on an alternative plan of action,” Usherwood said.

So, in the end, the current Brexit deal may be the only option. Ultimately, Usherwood said, if everything looks even less attractive than this deal, then that’s what will end up getting signed. “But,” he added, “who knows?”