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Theresa May is on a doomed mission to renegotiate Brexit

The UK Parliament voted to send the British prime minister back to Brussels to seek concessions — even though the European Union has already refused.

MPs Vote On Amendments To Brexit Plan
Pro-EU and pro-Brexit campaigners outside Parliament on January 29, 2019.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is on a doomed mission to renegotiated her Brexit deal.

The UK Parliament voted on Tuesday to send the prime minister back to Brussels to win concessions from the European Union on the Brexit withdrawal agreement — something the EU has already said is impossible.

Members of Parliament are specifically requesting that May revisit the part of the deal referred to as the Irish backstop. This is basically an insurance policy to prevent the establishment of a hard border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU) after Brexit. (This video explains why it’s a big deal.)

Conservative pro-Brexit lawmakers believe the backstop, as it’s currently laid out in the Brexit agreement, will trap the UK in the EU indefinitely. They want May to go back to the EU and find “alternative arrangements” to the current plan — but what those alternative arrangements might be has not been specified.

If you’re thinking, man, this sucks for May, wait a moment. Her government supported the amendment, basically admitting in the process that her original Brexit plan was flawed, and reneging on her previous remarks that this was “the only Brexit deal possible.”

May told members of Parliament after the vote Tuesday that her government “will now take this mandate forward and seek ... legally binding changes.” But she admitted that “there is limited appetite for such a change in the EU, and renegotiating it will not be easy.”

The EU put it a little differently: There’s no chance of renegotiations.

“The backstop is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation,” a spokesperson for EU Council President Donald Tusk wrote in a statement on Tuesday.

So May’s mission to Brussels appears to be doomed. If she fails to get the EU to budge, then perhaps she’ll finally convince the deal’s (many) opponents that voting for the original plan is the only option to avoid a no-deal Brexit. This scenario — where the UK crashes out of the EU with no agreement in place — would be bad for the EU, and would likely be a disastrous and terrifying mess for the UK.

The majority of Parliament wants to avoid that happening. In fact, an amendment rejecting the UK leaving the EU without a deal also passed Parliament on Tuesday. But it doesn’t have any legal force, so it can’t actually prevent a no-deal Brexit. It’s more like a strongly worded letter to the prime minister, telling her the UK really shouldn’t break from the EU without an agreement in place, but without offering any solution.

Or as May told Parliament on Tuesday: “I agree we should not leave without a deal, however, simply opposing no deal is not enough to stop it.”

So what does this latest vote mean?

Parliament’s vote on Tuesday was designed to give lawmakers more say over the Brexit process — an attempt for the legislature to sneak back a little control from the executive. It didn’t quite play out that way.

To quickly recap how we got here, May negotiated a Brexit deal with the EU last year. Parliament voted on it January 15, rejecting the deal outright. May returned the following week, on January 21, to offer her “Plan B,” which was essentially her Plan A.

As part of this Plan B process, Parliament was allowed to put forward amendments. Most of them — including the two that got approved on Tuesday — couldn’t force the government to do anything; they were more about trying to persuade May to change her position. But others would have set new rules on what Parliament could do between now and the March 29, 2019, Brexit deadline, which would have allowed lawmakers to assert more control.

That latter type of amendment — including one that would have given Parliament the chance to introduce a bill that would extend the Brexit deadline if May’s government couldn’t get a deal approved the end of February — failed to pass.

Instead, Parliament told May what she already knew: We don’t like your Brexit deal, but we also don’t want to walk away from the EU without a deal. This essentially leaves the UK in the same place it started, with no clear way forward on Brexit, and no obvious solution to break the impasse.

May will go back to EU leaders in Brussels, but it seems unlikely that she will walk away with concessions attractive enough to appease the Brexit hardliners who have loathed her deal from the beginning. Even if May somehow manages to secure (yet undefined) “alternative arrangements,” there’s no guarantee it will be enough to win support in another vote. The original plan was defeated by 230 votes — the worst loss for a government in modern British history.

The EU is staying firm, and a full-scale renegotiation of the backstop is currently out of the question. May’s government has also proven to be an unreliable partner; as her opponents in Parliament pointed out, she’s rejecting the very deal she agreed to.

So the UK is pretty much back where it started before the votes: No plan, and less than 60 days until Brexit.