Brexit: Where are we now?

EU leaders offered to delay Brexit until 22 May if MPs approve PM Theresa May’s deal next week. If they do not approve it, the delay will be shorter – until 12 April – at which point the UK must set out its next steps or leave without a deal. How do you read this EU approach and (I know it is hard to predict this), what path might the UK choose, and why? Read few comments.

Press conference of British PM Theresa May at European Council, (March, 21-22). Credit:

Simon UsherwoodAssociate Dean, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics, University of Surrey

The EU has moved to fill the gap left by the UK, and has sought to protect its interests here. The plan allows the EU to keep pressure on the UK to approve the Withdrawal Agreement, while also keeping a path open for a longer-term solution should it be necessary.

The big uncertainty is the UK. May has burned up a lot of her remaining political capital in the past days, so parliament is likely to become more willing to shape matters. However, there’s still no obvious preferred outcome among MPs.

Anthony SalamoneResearch Fellow and Strategic Advisor, Scottish Centre on European Relations

The EU27’s approach to the extension of Brexit at this week’s European Council reflects their realisation that Theresa May does not have a viable plan. May requested a extension until 30 June, without specifying what steps she would take to pass the withdrawal agreement beyond holding a third ‘meaningful vote’ in the House of Commons. EU leaders decided her approach was not concrete enough, and instead proposed an unconditional extension to 12 April or a conditional extension to 22 May. The plan from the EU27 is designed to ensure that Brexit does not negatively impact the European Parliament elections and the start of the new term in July. Brexit is starting to affect the functioning of the EU, and EU leaders want to avoid that.

British politics on Brexit is confused and unpredictable. The withdrawal agreement has been rejected twice, and it seems that it will likely be rejected the third time – although that could change. The debate within the Commons is largely not about the withdrawal agreement as a whole – it is about part of the agreement, the Irish backstop, and the political declaration on the future EU-UK relationship. At its core, a majority does not exist in the Commons for Theresa May’s proposal for the future relationship – even though, from the EU’s point of view, that discussion can only begin in detail after the UK has left the EU. Members of Parliament have rejected the Brexit deal, but they also want to leave with a deal. Ultimately, the Commons will have to decide what form of Brexit deal it does want, or if there should be no Brexit at all – meaning that either Theresa May must reach a cross-party compromise, or that other figures in the Commons must fulfil that role for her.

Benjamin Martill, The Dahrendorf Forum

I read the EU’s approach as an attempt to help May pass her Brexit deal by making passage seem more attractive. There is also a technical element here in that the 22 May date would allow the relevant legislation for the smooth implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement to be passed, whereas if this is not ratified this will not be necessary.

By setting down dates that are not too dissimilar, and by showing its own internal divisions on the matter, the EU has at least reduced the spectre in Britain that a lengthy delay of Article 50 might be on the cards. This could go one of two ways. On the one hand, it increases the extent to which legislators in the British Parliament will view the third vote as the ‘final vote’, and this will likely attract a number of Conservatives (and maybe some Labour members) to support the motion. In previous votes, the scale of defeat was increased by MPs defecting for symbolic reasons, since they knew there would be another vote. The final vote will gain more support.

However, the Council’s decision to reject the possibility of a longer A50 extension also reduces the spectre of “no Brexit” which is one of the only ways that Theresa May would be able to get a number of right-wing Conservatives on board, since many of them would actively support a no deal Brext.

Theresa May will almost certainly seek to put the Withdrawal Agreement past Parliament again, if she can. Ultimately, however, May will not be able to pass her Agreement if she does not reach out to the opposition. This has been the case for months, though, and she has either not realised this, or she does not wish to.

Oliver DaddowAssistant Professor in British Politics and Security, University of Nottingham

It looks to me as if the EU has “taken control” of the process, given that May has been unable to garner parliamentary support, so far, for the withdrawal agreement. The EU has to protect its interests, something often lost in the UK debate, and it has to have plans in place for a rough timeline with the EP elections approaching.

Theresa May’s Trump-like statement to the people from Downing Street on Wednesday has if anything hardened opinion in the country and parliament against her and her agreement so I suspect she will not get it past parliament if the speaker allows a third vote on it. One thing to note is the millions of people who have now signed an online petition asking for parliament to debate revoking Article 50 – an unprecedented volume of signatures.

I still expect the UK to leave but whether through incompetence or preference on May’s part (perhaps a mix of both), no deal is still on the table.

Iain BeggProfessor, European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science

The EU approach seems to me to be one in which the more patient voices have prevailed (Tusk, Netherlands, maybe Germany) over others who wanted an immediate end to the saga. Theresa May has, in effect, been given one last chance. It also shows the EP elections as having been much more influential than commentators in the UK have understood. My understanding is that an extension to end June, in which the UK had NOT participated in the EP elections, could have meant legal challenges to the legitimacy of the new EP.

It is hard to define ‘the UK’ in trying to answer your question. Our Prime Minister seems to be sticking to her stubborn view that her deeply unloved deal is the answer and I expect she will find a way to put it to parliament for the third time, probably next week. As things stand, she will probably again lose at which point a rather uncertain process will develop in which somehow Parliament will try to construct a majority for something different. But there will be all kinds of manoeuvres over the next week….

Han DorussenProfessor, Department of Government, University of Essex

The EU offer very much shows that EU politics is the ‘art of the possible’. The offer makes it possible for the UK to leave the EU without too much damage to the future political relation between the EU and Britain. And, of course, also to minimise any economic impact of Brexit for various EU countries. The EU offer, however, also very much dictates the terms of what will happen next, and it shows very limited flexibility on the EU side. In some ways, the EU seems more concerned about upcoming EU parliament elections than on making sure a ’no deal’ is avoided. Also, I don’t see any evidence of possible late minute concessions by the EU on the content of the withdrawal deal. Finally, the EU has still left open the possibility of much longer extensions — or even rescinding Article 50.

Theresa May has few options than to accept the EU offer. It is telling of the extremely weak bargaining position of the EU that she had to compromise on her request for extension of the Brexit deadline. In her speech on Wednesday, Theresa May stressed that she regretted having the ask for the extension, and now the EU hasn’t even been willing to give her what she asked for. Clearly, the whole process is becoming a humiliation, but it is less clear who is humiliated most: the Prime Minister, Parliament, or the UK as a whole?

Most likely (what can she do else?), Theresa May will bring the UK-EU deal back for a vote in Parliament next week. Assuming that the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, will let this happen because of the urgency of the situation, regardless of his statement earlier this week. She will try to persuade the DUP in first instance to back her deal, but she does not have a lot to offer to them. It is the prospect of a lengthy extension of Brexit that may convince them to back the deal. If so, this will most likely bring some of the Brexiteers on board as well. It remains however extremely doubtful that she will get a majority for her deal. There remains a faction within the Conservative party who would be quite happy with a ’no deal’ Brexit on April 12. They will only be convinced to switch their vote, if a lengthy extension (or even a cancellation of Article 50) seems likely. So far, this doesn’t seem to be happening.

Without the full support of her own party, Theresa May would have to look for the opposition for support. There are some Labour MPs who are wiling to support her, but there aren’t many. Theresa May’s speech on Wednesday has also really upset a lot of MPs — even in her own party but definitely in the opposition. The chances that Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP or the Independents will support her deal seem very remote at this stage.

Will the opposition then be able to take control of the process? They can try to get some votes through Parliament to indicate what would be an acceptable deal. It doesn’t look, however, that the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has the political will and  power (or even skills) to accomplish this. The opposition might be able to accomplish something much more crude; namely to get a vote of no-confidence through Parliament. This could trigger new national elections. In this scenario, there would most likely be a much longer extension of Brexit, and the EU could hope for a UK government with a clear mandate to either deliver or cancel Brexit.

Isabel Camisão, Assistant Professor, University of Coimbra

As you’ve said the European Council agreed to postpone Brexit, but the delay accepted was shorter than the one wanted by Theresa May. The reason is obvious: in May the EU Member States have electoral contests for the EP (the elections will be between the 23 and the 26 of May, depending on the member state), and therefore it would not be advised to have the Brexit deadlock still with no solution (that’s the reason why the 22 of March is the further Member States will go as regarding an extension of the deadline for Brexit). Indeed, an extension between the 22 of May would raise several political and legal questions. For one part, even if it is in the process of exiting the EU, the UK for the time being is a Member State and therefore it is obliged to conform with the EU law. This means that if the Brexit process is not completed before the kick start of the EP elections, legally the UK most likely would have to host an election for the EP. But at the same time, precisely because the UK would still be in the process of leaving the EU, it makes no sense that the UK elects MEP for a five-year term. Also, there is a question of the redistribution of seats. As you know it was agreed that after Brexit 27 of the UK’s 73 seats will be redistributed to other countries (whereas 43 seats will be kept for future enlargements). This will mean a smaller EP (with 705 seats instead of 751) but also means more MPEs for some Member States that already are adjusting their electoral lists and campaigns accordingly. I believe the EU is doing what is expected from it. EU leaders are not being inflexible as regarding some of the UK’s requests but they are sticking to what they think is in the EU’s 27 best interest.

s for the second part of your question, the answer is almost impossible. The EU accepted the longer extension (22 of May), providing that the UK MP’s vote on the Withdrawal deal is a yes. Here, we have to consider firstly that a third vote on the negotiated deal is not straightforward as the Parliament Speaker, John Bercow, has already said that the Parliament can’t vote a proposal for the third time without “substantial” changes (so Theresa May has to convince the Speaker); secondly, some analysts consider that May’s recent accusations regarding the MPs have not exactly granted support to her positions; on the contrary, May might be more entrenched and isolated than ever). So, if the House fails to vote the deal or reject it again, the UK could choose between leaving the EU by April (with no deal; meaning hard Brexit), revoking article 50 (ending Brexit) or asking for a long extension. So, the second, even shorter, deadline (12 of April) agreed by the European Council applies if the House fails to vote or votes to reject the Withdrawal Agreement for the third time. In that case the UK has to “indicate a way forward” before this date and put it to the consideration of the European Council. In practice, this means that all the possibilities are still on the table such as holding a second referendum (although that’s an option that cannot be rushed up as some formal procedures have to be followed); Theresa May’s resignation (and the appointment of another Conservative Prime Minister) or a vote of no confidence. Also Theresa May might consider that the best option is to propose a general election (in this case two thirds of the chamber would have to back May’s proposal and it would take at least five weeks). But time urges, which of course only adds to the pressure and the emotion, therefore hindering a reasoned solution. Clearly the crisis has escalated and some stakeholders are even talking of a “national emergency” situation in the UK. So, to reach a solution for the crisis is crucial for all. Perhaps the most advised way to go forward (should the MP’s fail to vote yes to the deal) is to get a long extension. The big question is: in a such a divided House is it possible to agree on any consensual solution? At the end of the day, I still believe Brexit will be a tremendous lost for the European project.

Christian SchweigerVisiting Professor Comparative European Governance Systems, Technische Universität Chemnitz

I envisage that May’s deal will once again be defeated in the Commons next week as she has angered many Tory and Labour MPs with her speech this week in which she tried to shift the blame for the Brexit chaos towards them. The deadline we are looking towards is therefore April 12th.

I do not expect May to still be prime minister by that date. It seems that an increasing number of Conservative MPs are losing trust in her leadership and it is now likely that she will be challenged again very soon. I hence predict that either Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt or Jacob Rees-Mogg will lead the UK in a few weeks time. All of them are likely to opt for a no deal Brexit as they are unable to compromise on a backstop.

To sum it up, my forecast is third defeat for May next week, followed by a successful leadership challenge and then a no deal exit from the EU in April. An early general election could follow soon if the DUP withdraw their support.

Nick WrightTeaching Fellow in EU Politics, University College London

EU strategy – this is very much about placing the onus back on the UK to make up its mind and try to steer it as far as possible towards the withdrawal agreement as negotiated. The EU doesn’t want the UK to crash out and nor does it want to be blamed for forcing the UK out. This is really a signal to Parliament to get a grip – perhaps in part because the EU27 have lost faith in Theresa May’s capacity to deliver anything.

UK’s path – who can say? I hope your crystal ball is better than mine! Prior to Wednesday I would have thought the majority against the deal would be likely to fall even further but then Theresa May made that hugely ill-judged intervention where she effectively blamed Parliament for the all the problems and took no responsibility herself which has done a lot of damage to her credibility and left MPs feeling pretty sore. There are signals that we may have a series of indicative votes in the coming days to get some idea of what Parliament will support – I would not be surprised if we land somewhere in the territory for a pragmatic soft Brexit – customs union, single market, Norway+ type territory. Obviously this does not change the Withdrawal Agreement but it could potentially enable the Political Declaration to be reopened and this new objective to be set out. But time is running very, very short now.

The big challenges are: the deadline for the UK saying if it will participate in the EP elections, in which case a longer extension becomes possible; and the need to pass a large amount of complex and difficult implementing legislation in the UK – the Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill – which has not even been published yet and needs to be agreed to enable us to exit in practice. Tory MPs (and others) could object to a lot of that.

May could still end up winning her Meaningful Vote but losing on her implementation bill. This is what almost happened to Harold Wilson in the 1970s when we were in the process of joining the then EEC!

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