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EU to UK: take the Brexit deal or else

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, is trying to help Theresa May sell her unpopular deal at home.

Argentina G20 Leaders’ Summit 2018 - Day 1 Of Sessions
Prime Minister Theresa May at G20 on Friday, November 30.
Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The European Union is making itself clear: It’s UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal or no deal at all.

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council (the body that governs the EU), said that the current Brexit withdrawal plan, agreed to last weekend by UK Prime Minister Theresa May and EU leaders, will provide an “orderly divorce.”

“A few days before the vote in the House of Commons it is becoming more and more clear that this deal is the best possible, in fact the only possible one,” Tusk said Friday at the start of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Tusk delivered the ultimatum as the United Kingdom debates the Brexit deal ahead of a vote in the UK Parliament next week. May’s deal — which tries to ease the divorce with a 21-month transition period, wherein the UK obeys EU rules without decision-making power — is pretty unpopular. That’s because it satisfies neither those in the pro-Brexit camp who are eager for a more decisive split with the European Union nor the pro-Remainers who would rather stay more closely tied to the EU.

EU leaders are quietly trying to back May in the face of this domestic resistance as she tries to sell this deal — and Tusk’s speech affirming that the EU will not renegotiate a different withdrawal plan is part of that effort.

But things are not looking great for May’s Brexit deal: There are dozens of defections from the pro-Brexit members of her own Conservative Party, and the opposition Labour Party isn’t likely to make up the votes, as they dislike the deal and have little appetite to deliver May a victory.

Here’s the even worse news, though: If May’s deal is bad, a no-deal Brexit scenario — which will happen if a final deal isn’t approved by the fast-approaching March 29, 2019, deadlinewould be potentially catastrophic for the UK.

On that date, the UK’s membership in the EU will expire, deal or no deal: 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and 1 million Britons living in other EU countries would lose all automatic rights and protections overnight. Air travel in the UK would grind to an immediate halt. British supermarkets could run out of food.

And those are just a few of the dire scenarios possible.

Nobody wants this no-deal scenario. Which might be why Tusk did add an important caveat in his ultimatum, offering a possible third option beyond May’s deal or no deal: no Brexit at all. “If this deal is rejected in the Commons, we are left with, as was already stressed a few weeks ago by prime minister May, an alternative. No deal or no Brexit at all,” Tusk said.

This will probably be reassuring to members of the UK Parliament who are demanding a second referendum — another chance for the people to vote on whether to split up with the EU. May has resisted calls for another referendum, but the clamor is intensifying as the remaining good options dwindle.

The prime minister, meanwhile, is spending the weekend selling her Brexit deal to a different crowd: the rest of the world. At the G20 summit in Buenos Aires — the annual meeting of the leaders of the top 20 economies in the world — she is expected to make the case to her fellow world leaders that the Brexit plan is a “good deal” for the global economy.

Getting the backing of other allies (and future trading partners) might offer some reassurances to members of Parliament who are hesitant about supporting the plan.

Whether May will get that support or not is unclear. But the Brexit options are running out — and so is time.

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