In November, Theresa May and the E.U. finalized the terms for the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement (Brexit Deal) leaving both parties satisfied that Brexit could proceed following ratification from the U.K. Parliament. However, when the deal was brought back to the U.K., May faced serious opposition from both pro-E.U. lawmakers and hard-line Brexiteers. May’s Brexit Deal was scheduled to be ratified late December but was postponed due to indications from Members of Parliament (MPs) that it would be severely rejected. Rescheduled for the third week of January, the Brexit Deal suffered the worst defeat in British parliamentary history, a resounding vote of 432-202. May has been unable to gain support from either end of the Brexit spectrum. On the one side, the pro-Europe and Remainers seek a softer version of Brexit or no Brexit at all. Oppositely, the hard-line Brexiteers seek a harder Brexit, where the U.K. is no longer tethered to the E.U. To gain a parliamentary consensus, May will have to revise her Brexit Deal and address the issues creating opposition.
Soon after the dramatic defeat, May addressed Parliament, outlining a plan with six main points. May discussed extending or revoking Article 50. Revoking Article 50, which May is against, would cancel Brexit. Extending Article 50 would delay Brexit, allowing the U.K. more time to amend and ratify the Brexit Deal. May has stated that she is against delaying Brexit as the E.U. would be unlikely to support a delay without a deal in place. This means that May is standing firmly behind her Brexit Deal despite the parliamentary defeat. Next, May discussed a second referendum, which she suggested would go against the 2016 referendum and potentially unsettle the people’s faith in democracy. Thirdly, May discussed her opposition to the contentious issue of the Irish backstop which is built into the Brexit Deal. The backstop is intended to prevent a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland by keeping the U.K in a customs union with the E.U., which May believes could otherwise upset the union of the United Kingdom. Additionally, May proposed that the non-binding Political Declarations of the Brexit Deal requires special expert committees from the U.K. to determine the discourse for future relations with the E.U. May’s fifth point was to note that social and environmental protections must continue following Brexit. Finally, May addressed the rights of E.U. citizens living in the U.K. who will be allowed to stay and access in country benefits in any Brexit scenario. These points represent the major issues that her opposition has cited as reasons to reject her Brexit Deal.
The issues May addressed do not represent a pro-European nor a hard-line Brexit agenda. Moreover, both sides of Brexit disagree with her on many points. Splitting Parliament on these issues is the reason May was only left with only 202 votes for her Brexit Deal which left May scrambling to appease one side. May had sought cross-party discussions to garner support from the Labour Party, which has supported a softer Brexit or no Brexit. These discussions were quickly abandoned as May said they would never materialize due to inherent disagreements. Labour politician, Yvette Cooper, said that May ruled out a customs union which would have been one way the Labour Party would have supported a Brexit Deal. The customs union, a form of trade agreement, would effectively leave the U.K. tethered to the E.U. Conversely, the hard-line Brexiteers oppose any agreement that subjects the U.K. to E.U., rules something that is inherent in the Irish backstop issue. The Irish backstop is the most significant issue for hard-line Brexiteers. Jacob Rees-Mogg, group leader of hard-line pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers suggested that if the Irish border issue can be resolved, they would support May’s Brexit Deal. For May to support a customs union would rule out support from hard-line Brexiteers and many Conservative MPs. May firmly opposes the Irish backstop and will seek to resolve the issue with the E.U. However, the E.U. continues to reiterate that it will not renegotiate the terms of the Brexit Deal. This indicates that May’s efforts to secure a parliamentary majority will be a moot point due to her inability to manoeuvre between parliamentary opposition and the E.U.
May’s Brexit strategy was to present to the U.K. Parliament a compromise agreed to by the E.U. After the resounding defeat, May is now seeking to gain support from hard-line Brexiteers by opposing the Irish backstop issue. However, the E.U. has reiterated its refusal to renegotiate, Chief E.U. Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, saying the E.U. will not amend the legally binding agreement. Although some E.U. leaders have suggested finding a solution, Polish Foreign Minister, Jacek Czaputowicz suggested a five-year time limit to the backstop. With little ability to manoeuvre, May is unlikely to deliver her Brexit Deal as the U.K. Parliament does not want to agree to her compromise. The concern for the U.K. and the E.U. is that the alternatives to May’s Brexit Deal are far less appealing. Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, this week presented a series of non-binding amendments attempting to open the door for a softer Brexit and potentially a second referendum. A second referendum has slowly gained attention as an alternative. The pro-European side of Brexit believes this to be an opportunity to reverse Brexit and remain in the E.U., while hardliners, May included, believe a second referendum to be un-democratic. Another even less popular alternative is a no-deal Brexit. Many Brits have begun stockpiling goods, fearing shortages of essentials due to a disruption in trade resulting from a no-deal Brexit. Outside the U.K., a no-deal Brexit could have global repercussions; the International Monetary Fund warned of the uncertainty that may result which could potentially weaken global economic growth, already set to slow in 2019. May will need to quickly urge MPs to compromise and accept her Brexit Deal or face an uncertain alternative.
The current impasse of Brexit begs the question, could the disorder in the U.K. Parliament have been avoided? Perhaps if May had sought a bolder Brexit in negotiations with the E.U., she could have gained parliamentary consensus by appealing to hard-line Brexiteers. Alternatively, if May had originally sought a Norway or Canada style deal could parliamentary consensus been achieved through the support of pro-European MPs? It is difficult to determine what the outcome might have been, but any result would have been likely less dramatic than the defeat of May’s Brexit Deal. Despite the wishful thinking of what might have been, the current deal presents the most viable Brexit option. Hard-line Brexiteers and pro-European lawmakers will have to compromise on the main issues of contention. Hard-line Brexiteers will need to accept the temporary arrangement of the Irish backstop to secure future trade negotiations with the E.U. Pro-European lawmakers need to accept the results of the 2016 referendum and support a Brexit Deal that still is in the best interest of the British people. The alternatives of a no-deal Brexit, a second referendum or further delays are likely to exhaust a fatigued public. A compromise is likely the best option for the U.K. to exit the E.U.
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