The Latest Brexit Breakdown

On Friday, the UK’s parliament voted to apply for Brexit extension. The new deadline for the U.K. to leave EU is on March 29th. The vote was won by a large 211 majority, despite the fact that most MPs from the ruling Conservative party voted against the extension. If Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal is passed on its third attempt next week, then the extension will only be until the 30th of June. However, if her deal is voted down for the third time, then she will seek a longer delay, perhaps up to two years. Any delay must be approved by all EU member states and the EU will want to hear a good reason to justify such a decision. May is using the threat of a longer Brexit delay, which could also bring the potential for a second referendum or a general election, to convince Brexiteers (MPs dedicated to a hard Brexit) to agree to her deal. This is threatening to them because they want Brexit as soon as they can get it and another referendum or election might yield a Brexit which is even further from the Brexit they want, or even no Brexit at all.

This comes after parliament voted down May’s recently updated Brexit deal on Wednesday, with a majority of 149 votes. Those voting against the deal included the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a Northern Irish party, which is currently in coalition with the ruling Conservative Party, and 75 Conservative Party Brexiteers. While this was a devastating defeat, the previous version of the deal was lost by 230 votes – the largest defeat in the U.K.’s parliamentary history. While it seems that the U.K. will be able to extend the March 29th deadline, there is still no clear path out of the Brexit crisis. The worst-case scenario of a no deal Brexit is still a possibility. Most experts agree that the U.K. exiting the EU without a deal would be very harmful to the region’s economy. More importantly, it could threaten peace in Northern Ireland.

Without an exit deal, the trade relationship between the U.K. and the EU would revert to World Trade Organisation rules. This would require the U.K. to put tariffs on all EU goods entering the country, and a hard border with customs checks between the two states would be necessary.

As of now, the only land border the U.K. has with the EU is along the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Preventing the free movement of people and goods between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland could threaten the integrity of the ‘Good Friday Agreement,’ which put an end to decades of violent conflicts called ‘The Troubles.’  While the causes of The Troubles are historical and complicated, part of what led up to the conflict was the creation and strict policing of the Irish border by the British, and creating an open border was a significant motivation for the peace process. The Irish nationalists want a united Ireland, but settled on having an open border and the guarantee that Northern Ireland would one day become part of the republic once a majority of the people living there wanted that. New border controls might motivate nationalist groups to resort to violence again to achieve their goals, as they have in the past. Last week, mail bombs were sent to London; a group claiming to be called the ‘Irish Republican Army’ (a militant nationalist group that fought in The Troubles) has since claimed responsibility. There is currently no direct evidence that the mail bombs and the concerns over a hard boarder in Ireland are connected, but it does not bode well.

The issue of the Irish border is the primary reason why it has been so difficult to create a deal which parliament will pass. Neither the Republic of Ireland nor Northern Ireland want a hard border. As an EU member state with the right to veto any deal negotiated with the EU, the Republic of Ireland will never allow the U.K. to get a deal with the EU which would risk a hard border. But any deal which does not have this risk can instead have U.K. stay within the EU’s customs union indefinitely. Brexiteers will not agree to a deal which has this risk, because to them leaving the customs union is essential to having the kind of full and meaningful Brexit they want. Having a hard border between Northen Ireland and the rest of the U.K. is also infeasible because that would be a massive blow to Northern Ireland’s economy, and could threaten the unity of the states within the U.K. Moreover, it would never gain the support of the Northern Irish DUP party. The opposition has little to gain from supporting May’s deal, and many of them do not want to go through with Brexit at all. These factors are why any deal negotiated with the EU is extremely unlikely to ever pass the current makeup of parliament.

When a parliament reaches ‘deadlock’ and its government loses its ability to pass legislation, the most appropriate course of action is either to have a referendum to solve the issue causing the parliamentary dysfunction, or to hold a general election and hope that a new parliamentary makeup can find a majority of votes to address the crisis. In the case of the Brexit, it looks like one or both of these paths will be necessary to end the continuing deadlock, uncertainty, and ongoing risk of a no deal Brexit.

Fresh parliamentary elections have the potential to bring in a new group of MPs who might have a better chance of being able to reach a consensus on Brexit. While it is difficult to accurately predict how an election would go, there is potential for a variety of constructive outcomes. The Conservatives could gain a larger majority and could be less reliant on the votes of rebel Brexiteers or their DUP coalition partners. Alternatively, the Labour Party could take power and create a Brexit deal which maintains the customs union (which Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn claims he wants to do), thus avoiding the issue of the Irish border. If the elections resulted in another deadlock, then the need for a second referendum would become more obvious.

There are some who would argue that holding a second referendum to go back on the first would be undemocratic. On the surface, it is undemocratic for a government to have multiple referendums until it gets a result that it wants. But in the case of Brexit, a significant amount of relevant new information has come to light which could influence how people would vote in a Brexit referendum. In the first referendum, those voting in favour of Brexit were given no indication of what an achievable Brexit deal would look like. Now that this has become clearer, it is reasonable to again directly ask the public what they think should be done from here.

Deciding the exact referendum question(s) would be difficult. One possible way to conduct a second referendum would be to have a preferential vote on four possible options. A preferential vote is when voters list a number of options in order of preference and if none of the options wins a majority of first preferences then second and third preferences are taken into account. In the interests of democracy, one of the options on the referendum should be to leave the EU without a deal, despite the potentially devastating consequences of that choice. Another option should be for there to be no Brexit at all; 48.1% voted against Brexit in the first referendum and they deserve to have an option which acknowledges that. The third potential option should be whether May’s deal should be carried out; she was given a democratic mandate to create a deal by being elected prime minister, so her deal should be included. While the referendum could be based on the three options above, it might also be fruitful to include a fourth option which lets people choose to support the kind of Brexit Labour is proposing.

The Brexiteers will be contemplating the gamble May has set before them, and it is possible her deal will be passed on its third attempt. But a large number of MPs that need to change their minds make this outcome unlikely; 75 MP’s would have to switch their votes from ‘against’ to ‘for.’ While the delay and uncertainty are not good for the EU, it is also against their interests to have the U.K. leave the EU without a deal, so it is highly likely they will allow an extension on the exit date, even without a particularly compelling reason to do so. There is a good chance that May will get an extension of about two years; during this time one might speculate that the popularity of the Conservatives will wane, due to their inability to resolve the crisis. One could also suggest that the Brexiteers would see this trend and be concerned that Labour would likely win the 2022 election, and as a result, they could agree to May’s deal rather than risk a Labour led Brexit. Whatever does end up happening regarding Brexit, many Britons are not going to be satisfied with the result; whichever deal is chosen and whether they leave the EU or stay, the wedge that has become apparent in British society shall likely remain.

Edmund Pollock

Correspondent at The Organisation for World Peace
Edmund graduated from Victoria University of Wellington with a Bachelor of Arts Degree, double majoring in Philosophy and Political Science.
His main areas of passion and interest are sortition, democracy, and global inequality.
Edmund Pollock

About Edmund Pollock

Edmund graduated from Victoria University of Wellington with a Bachelor of Arts Degree, double majoring in Philosophy and Political Science. His main areas of passion and interest are sortition, democracy, and global inequality.