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Friday 2 June 2023 Dublin: 12°C
# divided kingdom
A Brexistential crisis: So what happens now?
The best answer to that question is: “F**k knows. I’m past caring. It’s like the living dead in here.”

Brexit banner

SO, WHAT IN heavens happens now?

Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated over a period of two years between her officials and the EU, has been rejected for the third time in three months.

Despite intense lobbying by the Prime Minister’s team, the deal was defeated by a majority of 58; her deal was previously defeated by 230 votes, and then by 149 votes. 

As her deal is defeated, the default leave date is now 12 April.

If her deal had been approved, the UK would have left the EU under the terms in the Withdrawal Agreement by 22 May, the day before EU elections begin. 

After her vote was rejected by 344 MPs, May said exasperatedly: “I fear we are reaching the limits of the process in this House”.

So what are the options, and how likely are they?

More indicative votes

On Monday, April Fools’ Day, the UK parliament will hold a second day of indicative votes; the last round of votes held on Wednesday resulted in the parliament rejecting all 8 options put forward.

John Bercow Commons Press Office Commons Press Office

But some of those options – such as a Customs Union which was only rejected by six votes – may have a chance of being approved by MPs now that May’s deal has been rejected.

It was negotiated with the European Union that if May’s deal was rejected, the UK would have to decide what was to happen next.

After the result in the House of Commons, European Council President Donald Tusk said that he was calling an emergency meeting of EU heads of state on 10 April. 

It’s intended that the UK will suggest what should happen next to the EU, and the European Council’s 27 leaders will discuss whether to approve that option on 10 April (with the UK due to leave the EU two days later, remember).

Britain Brexit Frank Augstein Frank Augstein

Another extension

The option to extend Article 50, which would mean delaying the date the UK is due to leave the EU, has already been taken (Brexit day was meant to be today).

But UK and EU politicians are worried about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, so in order to avoid that, they might give the UK another longer extension in order for them to get their House in order.

Another extension would most likely mean that the UK would remain in the EU during the European elections that are being held between 23 and 26 May (Ireland’s election is on 24 May). Theresa May has said that this would almost certainly mean that the UK would have to take part in European elections.

The EU has said that this would have to happen because if the UK were to remain in the EU but not take part in the election, there’s a fear that they could be vulnerable to legal challenges taken by citizens in the UK who want to exercise their right to vote.

Brexit Kirsty O'Connor A disagreement between Brexit demonstrators at Westminster today. Kirsty O'Connor

If they did take part in the European elections, Nigel Farage has indicated that he would run as a Brexit Party candidate, as would other pro-Brexit advocates. This would mean a stronger pro-Brexit presence in the European Parliament, which neither side wants but could well happen.

The Withdrawal Agreement

Renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement is the suggestion made by some of those who have been voting against the deal: including the DUP, former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, and ERG member Steve Baker. 

They are calling for the backstop specifically to be renegotiated, with Baker saying that there were many elements to the Withdrawal Agreement that were bad, but claimed that the backstop “means we’ll indefinitely be trapped”.

The likelihood is quite low though. Leading figures of the European Union have said that the negotiation is finished, and they can only provide legal assurances on what has already been agreed.

“The European Council has agreed unanimously that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be re-opened,” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in the immediate aftermath of the deal being rejected, repeating comments Theresa May made to the House of Commons minutes before.

It’s also possible that the Withdrawal Agreement could be put forward for a fourth vote next week…

Theresa May told parliament after her deal was rejected that she would still push for an “orderly exit” on 22 May; Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn then pushed her to accept that her Brexit deal isn’t good enough to pass, and should be left to one side.

She didn’t really do that.

Instead, one of the likely scenarios being put forward is that if a customs union gets a majority in the House of Commons on Monday, May could put her deal back to a vote – with an amendment that a customs union could be included as part of it.

It would then be for the European Council to approve a deal with a customs union, an option which they would be happy with as the EU wants as close a relationship as possible with the UK.

General election, second referendum, and revoking Article 50 

If a longer extension is granted, a general election and a second referendum are increasingly likely, as the UK establishment would have the time to organise them.

House of Commons Commons Press Office Commons Press Office

Earlier in the week, May promised that she would step aside if her deal was passed today, sparking talk of who her successor could be. If there was a Tory leadership, it could take up to 6 weeks from start to finish.

A general election could also be called: this could rearrange the numbers in the House of Commons enough so that there would be a clear majority for a type of Brexit. If a snap election was called, it would take around two months to organise.

In 2017, a snap election was held on 8 June after Theresa May called for it on 18 April (it was this election that lost May her majority in the House of Commons and led to a coalition with the DUP…)

After an online petition gathered almost 6 million signatures, questions have also been raised on whether the British government could revoke Article 50, thereby undoing the entire Brexit process.

A European court has already decided that the British government has the power to do this, but May has so far refused to entertain the idea, saying that it would weaken people’s trust in democracy if she were to unilaterally reverse what the majority of the British public voted for.

No deal

A “no-deal scenario on 12 April is now a likely scenario”, the European Commission has said in a statement after the vote.

Despite the majority of MPs voting against a no-deal Brexit, the default position is currently that on 12 April at 11pm, the UK will leave the EU without a deal. There are a number of serious ramifications of that, for Ireland especially.

And even in a no-deal scenario, the UK would still have to hold negotiations with the EU eventually about its new relationship, so even in the walk-away scenario, they would still need to hold negotiations to try to strike a deal.

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