The UK Parliament voted Tuesday, 242 to 391, against the British prime minister’s proposed agreement, rejecting it with less than three weeks to go before the Brexit deadline of March 29, 2019.
The outcome wasn’t totally shocking, as May basically put forward the same deal that members of Parliament (MPs) rejected in January. She was unable to win major concessions from the European Union on the agreement, specifically when it came to the “Irish backstop,” a guarantee that a “hard” border won’t be put in place between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland when the EU and UK break up. The EU did offer some last-minute legal assurances that the backstop would be temporary, but this did not really alter the terms of the backstop and the Brexit agreement.
May’s loss is not as dramatic as the previous vote in January, when Parliament rejected her Brexit deal by 230 votes — the worst defeat for the British government in modern history. But it’s still humiliating, and almost guarantees that May won’t make a third attempt to get this deal passed before March 29. And it leaves the UK without a clear path forward.
This is also just the beginning of what could be a wild week in Westminster. May promised two additional votes on Brexit if Parliament once again voted down the agreement. The first of these is set for Wednesday, when MPs will vote on whether to leave the EU on March 29 without a deal — basically a self-inflicted “no-deal Brexit” that means the UK would crash out of the bloc without any transition period, to potentially chaotic consequences.
If they decide that they don’t want to leave the EU without a deal — which seems likely — MPs are expected to vote Thursday on whether to seek a short-term extension to the deadline. This would effectively postpone the divorce, likely for two or three months. But all EU member states would have to unanimously agree to move the deadline — and it might come with conditions.
An extension also does not solve the question that is still tearing the UK apart: How the heck will the UK break up with the EU?
May’s plan is dead, for now. Parliament has to decide whether to move forward without a deal, or ask for a delay.
May’s plan looked headed for defeat even before members of Parliament voted Tuesday. She failed to win major concessions — such as time limits — from the EU on the contentious issue of the Irish backstop.
The Irish backstop ensures there will be no physical checkpoints or controls on the border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK and soon to be an ex-EU member) and the Republic of Ireland, an independent country that’s also an EU member state. That open border is critical to protecting a 20-year peace process in Northern Ireland.
But here’s why the backstop is a sore point: If the UK and EU can’t figure out their future relationship after Brexit, the UK will have to follow the bloc’s customs rules, and Northern Ireland will have to adhere to EU regulations even more closely. Opponents of the backstop see this as “trapping” the UK in a relationship with the European bloc indefinitely.
EU leaders did give May some extra legal assurances on Tuesday — basically add-ons to the Brexit deal — to help guarantee the temporary nature of the backstop, and to make clear that the backstop wouldn’t be the default option for the EU-UK’s permanent future relationship. The UK also included a unilateral statement that said it could seek to get out of the backstop if the EU operated in bad faith. This seemed mostly a concession May gave to herself, but the EU didn’t object to the UK’s unilateral statement.
These addendums to the deal would empower the UK to seek recourse from independent arbiters if it felt the EU wasn’t negotiating in good faith as they tried to define their future relationship and protect the Irish border.
But as soon as May tried to sell these additions as major “legal changes,” the UK’s attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, quickly spoiled the celebration. His legal advice, published before the vote on Tuesday, said that the core of the backstop remained “unchanged.” The new assurances lessened the risk that the UK would be stuck in the backstop indefinitely, he concluded, but since the actual Brexit deal didn’t change, the UK remained bound by its original terms.
This legal advice dashed any chance May had of winning support from hardline Brexiteers — those who want a decisive split with the EU — in her Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, the conservative party from Northern Ireland that keeps May’s government in power. The majority of the opposition Labour Party, never eager to give May a victory, joined them to kill the deal.
MPs are also gambling that other votes later this week — one on a no-deal Brexit, and another on an extension — might offer a better opportunity for MPs who find fault with May’s deal to try to push a different plan through.
On Wednesday, Parliament will vote on whether it wants to leave the EU without a deal on March 29. The deeply divided government can’t agree on much, but MPs have agreed in the past that they want to leave the EU with a deal in place, so the no-deal exit seems likely to get defeated.
If the no-deal measure is rejected, then, on Thursday, Parliament will vote on whether to seek a limited extension to Article 50, the provision of the EU treaty under which the UK is withdrawing from the bloc. May has indicated that this would be a short-term extension, which would simply postpone Brexit for a few months. There is also a chance that May may just go ahead an ask for an extension herself, without a full vote in Parliament, according to recent reports.
But any extension, of any length, will require approval from the EU member states.
“If the UK asks for an extension, it will be a short extension; everything suggests that,” Michael Leigh, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund and former EU commissioner, told me last week.
That’s likely to mean two months. European parliamentary elections are taking place at the end of May, and the EU has signaled that if the UK plans to leave the EU, it must do so before those votes, between May 23 and 26. Otherwise, the UK will be legally bound to participate and put up candidates in those elections.
But even a short-term delay may force the EU to ask the UK: What’s this extension good for?
EU leaders had previously been reluctant to grant the UK an extension unless a legitimate reason existed — something that could fundamentally change the Brexit outcome, such as another referendum vote on whether to remain in the EU or new general elections.
Moving the deadline so the UK could continue arguing didn’t seem likely before, but the EU also wants to avoid the chaos of a no-deal scenario, which would still be bad for the EU (if much worse for the UK). The EU likely doesn’t want to take the blame for that fallout, especially if it’s within its power to avoid, by just pushing back the deadline. Still, all 27 EU member states would have to unanimously approve the extension.
The EU would likely make a final decision at the European Council summit starting March 21, just eight days before the Brexit deadline.
An extension wouldn’t eliminate a no-deal scenario, just postpone the possibility. And if May does get two more months, she will almost certainly have to pursue a new Brexit strategy.
Up until this point, the prime minister has tried to maintain Conservative Party unity while also delivering on Brexit. She is trying to avoid a catastrophic no-deal Brexit that the Brexiteers are willing to risk, but she also won’t entertain the proposals embraced by the Remainers in her party, specifically a second referendum.
Something is going to have to give. What that is, well, is anyone’s guess.
Some reports have suggested May might cut her own deal with hardline Brexiteers. She could potentially promise that if they vote for the withdrawal agreement on a possible third go-around, she’ll step down as prime minister and allow someone else within the party to negotiate the future EU-UK relationship. (This is complicated by the EU’s stance on Tuesday that there would be no third chances.)
Or she might finally accept that she’ll never woo the Brexiteers, and move instead to build a cross-party coalition with the opposition Labour Party to get a Brexit plan passed. That will almost certainly mean a softer Brexit — one in which the UK promises up front to keep following some EU rules, such as staying in a permanent customs union. That’s a position Labour largely supports, though it would require May to abandon some of her Brexit “red lines.”
That scenario is still a few steps away. As it stands now, the only Brexit plan on offer is still something the UK Parliament refuses to accept. Parliament can change course this week — but a delay won’t break the current Brexit impasse.