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Theresa May is seeking a lifeline from the EU after Brexit deal chaos

The British prime minister is meeting with EU leaders as pressure at home mounts.

Theresa May Meets With Angela Merkel As Brexit Approval Stalls
British Prime Minister Theresa May meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on December 11, 2018.
Michele Tantussi/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

British Prime Minister Theresa May abruptly postponed the scheduled Parliament vote on her Brexit deal on Monday, conceding that the proposal was headed for defeat.

The vote will now be held before January 21, according to the prime minister’s spokesperson, but an exact date has not been set. It’s likely that the vote will be pushed into January, inching closer to the Brexit deadline of March 29, 2019.

The January 21 date is a notable one in Britain’s Brexit calendar. The EU Withdrawal Act, which incorporates Brexit into UK law, requires the prime minister to give an update on Brexit by January 21 if her deal is rejected or if talks with the European Union break down.

There hasn’t been a vote yet, and talks with the EU haven’t exactly broken down. May and the EU do have a Brexit divorce deal. But it just so happens that the terms of the withdrawal agreement are deeply unpopular among members of Parliament, from both hardline Brexiteers, who want a more decisive split with the EU, and more pro-Europe members who’d prefer Brexit never happened.

That’s ultimately why May decided to postpone the Brexit vote, as she couldn’t come close to mustering the support to get it through. That decision led to a raucous day in Parliament on Monday, which included everything from May trying to defend her decision against attacks to a Labour member of Parliament temporarily stealing the queen’s mace, a symbol of her authority that must be present in order for Parliament to meet or pass laws. (It was returned.)

The debate continues in Parliament as May heads to Europe in hopes of convincing leaders to tweak the Brexit deal to make it a little more palatable at home. EU leaders seemed sympathetic to May’s dilemma, but they aren’t likely to offer major concessions that would dramatically change the deal. This means that May’s pilgrimage to Brussels probably won’t accomplish much.

It’s beginning to sound a bit clichéd at this point ... but what happens next is anybody’s guess.

Theresa May is headed to Europe to do ... something

May’s government has said that members of Parliament will vote on a deal before January 21, though the exact date hasn’t been set. And no one knows exactly what the MPs will be voting on.

At issue is the part of the Brexit deal that’s been referred to as the “Irish backstop.” It’s basically an insurance policy meant to guarantee that the border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU) remains open as the UK and EU try to negotiate their future relationship during a transition period that will extend until 2020.

May’s deal would preserve this open border through a complicated arrangement that would involve the UK remaining as part of the EU customs union. The UK can’t unilaterally pull out of this setup, and opponents see this as potentially hitching the UK to the EU without an end date.

The government’s own legal analysis, which it was forced to publish after a historic contempt vote last week, confirmed those fears by warning that the UK could end up stuck in “protracted and repeated rounds of negotiations” for years.

May said on Tuesday that European leaders have a “shared determination” to address some of the UK Parliament’s concerns about the backstop. But that “shared determination” won’t include reopening of the negotiations.

European leaders have made that clear. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said they can add some more clarifications but there is “no room whatsoever” to renegotiate the deal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel — whom May met with Tuesday after getting locked in her own car, which seems like a metaphor for everything — also said that there would be “no further opening of the exit deal.”

There will be an emergency Brexit summit at the end of the week, but this seems to be a continuation of the same dance: May making a show of advocating for the concerns of members of Parliament, the EU responding by essentially saying, we hear you, but it’s this deal or no deal.

This stalling may be an attempt to force Parliament’s hand. A vote in the new year will put Parliament closer to the Brexit deadline in March. May may be hoping that as time runs out, so will the alternatives — and her deal will be the only thing left that’s better than a no-deal Brexit.

Parliament is still really angry about May’s decision

Members of Parliament wanted to get May’s deal over with on Tuesday — vote on it, kill it, and try to figure out what’s next. That much they could agree on. The problem is no one knows how to handle the “what comes next” part.

Parliament is at a standstill. May’s Conservative Party is split between Brexit advocates, some of whom wouldn’t mind leaving the EU without a deal, and more moderate pro-Remain folks. Labour, too, has been wishy-washy on its preferred plan for Brexit, and while some opposition members are advocating a second referendum, this has not been completely embraced by the party.

Opposition parties are pushing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to push for a no-confidence vote against May in Parliament, which could potentially force out May’s government and lead to new elections. But Corbyn has resisted so far, and members of his party are backing him up, because it’s not clear there’s enough support for a no-confidence vote to succeed right now.

May may also be under threat for her own Conservative Party once again. After she proposed a Brexit deal, some Tory MPs rebelled and call for a no-confidence vote against her.

Members of Parliament have to submit formal letters to the party’s parliamentary committee and lay out their case against May. A total of 48 letters can trigger a no-confidence vote, but it would require a majority of Conservatives to force her to resign from the prime ministership.

Conservatives are so split that there’s no clear alternative to May, but the Guardian reports that MPs believe they are close to reaching that magic 48 number.

Then there’s the question of a possible second referendum, a chance for the people to vote again on whether to leave or remain in the EU. It remains a possibility, but there’s no clear route to that yet, either. Other MPs are arguing to just go back and argue for a softer Brexit — what you’ll hear referred to as the Norway-style deal — which means the UK would remain a member of the single market. This, however, won’t fly with the hardline Brexiteers, as they’d have to follow all the EU rules.

The UK will likely continue to fight this out as the prime minister attempts to win something from European leaders to take back to Parliament — and as she faces an even more precarious position at home.

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