Dec 19, 2018 | 20:10 GMT

8 mins read

Delayed Brexit, No Brexit, New Brexit: A Departure (or Not) in Several Scenarios

A Brexit opponent displays the Union Jack and the European Union flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Dec. 17, 2018.
(TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Big Picture

The United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union on March 29. The British government is having a hard time selling the exit deal it negotiated with the European Union to a skeptical House of Commons. While a rejection of the deal would increase the chances of a disorderly Brexit, other scenarios are still possible.

After days of speculation, the British government announced on Dec. 17 that the House of Commons will vote on Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit agreement with the European Union during the week of Jan. 14. The vote had been set for Dec. 11, but May postponed it by a month to avoid defeat. The United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union on March 29. By putting off the vote for a month, May is hoping to raise the stakes and pressure on Commons to approve her deal. It's a risky strategy: May will still struggle to persuade enough members of Parliament to support her plan, which includes a controversial provision to keep the United Kingdom in a customs arrangement with the European Union until a better solution is found to keep the Irish border open. A rejection by Commons in mid-January would give May's government only about 10 weeks to negotiate a new exit deal with the European Union or seek another vote in Parliament, which would significantly increase the chances of a disorderly Brexit.

Several scenarios could follow if the House of Commons turns down May's Brexit deal:

Brexit Is Postponed or Suspended

The negotiations between London and Brussels take place under the rules established by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which makes it possible for members to leave the European Union. To avoid a disorderly Brexit, the British government has two options involving Article 50.

One is to postpone Britain's exit from the European Union until after March 29. This option has several problems. The United Kingdom cannot postpone Brexit alone, because it needs unanimous support from the remaining 27 governments of the European Union, some of which could be reluctant when it comes to giving this concession to Britain. At the same time, postponing Brexit probably would mean that the United Kingdom would have to participate in the elections to appoint the next European Parliament, which are scheduled for late May. Then the United Kingdom would be entitled to appoint a member of the European Commission in October. This would create a massive institutional headache for the European Union. As a result, a short postponement of a few weeks is more likely than a long one (beyond the European Parliament vote).

Another option is to suspend Brexit. This option has become available only recently, after the European Court of Justice ruled that the British government has the right to unilaterally withdraw its petition to exit the European Union. This option has an obvious benefit: It does not require the participation of the rest of the EU governments. But it would be very costly from a political point of view, because it would mean negating the result of the Brexit referendum, even if the British government promises that the suspension is only temporary.

Neither postponing or suspending Brexit would change the fact that the House of Commons is deeply fragmented when it comes to leaving the European Union. As a result, the Article 50 options would only buy the government time to achieve something else, such as negotiating a new deal, holding an early election or organizing another referendum.

A No-Deal Brexit

According to May's government, a no-deal Brexit will be the default outcome if the House of Commons votes against her deal. This assumption is based on the fact that the European Union probably will refuse to negotiate a new agreement that does not include provisions to keep the Irish border open, and there won't be time to negotiate a significantly different deal before March 29. As a result, the Commons' rejection of May's Brexit plan would significantly increase the chances of a no-deal exit.

However, there are also several factors that would work against a no-deal Brexit. First, a majority of members of the House of Commons is against this scenario. Second, should May lose the Brexit vote next month, her position would be so weak that she might resign, opening the door for the Conservative Party to appoint a new leader (and therefore, a new prime minister). Last week's failed leadership challenge to May showed that while a large number of Conservative members of Parliament dislike May (117 voted against her), a majority supports her, which suggests they would also support a Tory leader who, like May, wants an orderly Brexit. Third, a no-deal scenario is likely to have a negative effect on the British economy. As a result, while the British government has the final say on a no-deal Brexit, several actors (including the House of Commons, businesses and even people taking to the streets) will pressure May or her successor to avoid a disorderly Brexit. Considering that the European Court of Justice has given the British government the power to suspend Brexit, pressure will only grow on May to use this option if the House of Commons rejects her deal.

A chart showing how parties in the British Parliament's House of Commons might vote on Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit agreement with the European Union.

An Early Election

The House of Commons has become so fragmented that an early general election could be the only way to break the stalemate. But according to British law, an early election can happen only if the government is ousted through a vote of no-confidence and members of Parliament fail to appoint another government within 14 days, or if two thirds of the members of the House of Commons vote in favor of an early election.

The opposition Labour Party has promised to trigger a no-confidence motion against May if Commons rejects her Brexit deal. But even if May has many rivals within her Conservative Party, it is not a given that Tory members of Parliament will vote against their own prime minister and open the door for an election that Labour could win. In this scenario, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) would be a key actor to watch, because it has agreed to support May's minority government in no-confidence votes. Should Tories rebel against May, or should the DUP break its promise to support her government, May would be in trouble. The same logic applies to plans to reach the two-thirds majority in Commons necessary to trigger an early election.

If a general election is scheduled, London would almost certainly have to postpone or suspend Brexit to buy time for the vote to take place.

Naturally, Brexit would be the main topic of any electoral campaign because the election would be in effect an informal referendum on Brexit. The problem is that both the Conservatives and Labour are internally divided on the kind of Brexit they want, so they would struggle to come up with coherent proposals. Moreover, both parties have factions that want another Brexit referendum, which means that this is something that both will have to consider when defining their strategies. A victory by Labour would increase the chances of a second referendum, though there would be big debates within the party about what to ask voters.

Another Brexit Referendum

This is the most politically complex of all scenarios, largely because it would mean negating the result of the first Brexit referendum. Politicians who oppose a second referendum argue that holding a new vote would undermine British democracy because it would damage the credibility of referendums. Some have gone as far as to argue that a new Brexit referendum would give Scottish nationalists legal grounds to demand another independence vote, after the one they lost in 2014. On the contrary, defenders of a new Brexit referendum argue that voters now have more information about the implications of Brexit than they had in 2016, and because Parliament has proven unable to provide an orderly Brexit, the question should be sent back to voters.

There are precedents of European countries holding two referendums on the same issue after negotiating with the European Union. For example, it took Denmark two attempts (in 1992 and 1993) to approve the Maastricht Treaty. The difference is that between the first and second votes the Danish government obtained significant concessions from the European Union (such as an opt-out from the eurozone) that made it easier for Danish politicians to justify a second vote. Similarly, Ireland voted twice on the Nice Treaty, but only after Dublin obtained reassurances from Brussels that the treaty would not compromise Irish neutrality.

This is connected to a second issue: What should the second referendum be about? While some politicians argue that the United Kingdom should hold another in/out referendum, others argue that the vote should include multiple questions (for example, ask voters to choose between no Brexit, no-deal Brexit and May's agreement). The Brexit referendum only asked voters whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union; it left the details to be worked out later. A new referendum that asks the same question would leave the same problems unresolved if voters again chose to leave, while it could lead to large protests by original "leave" voters if the "remain" option were to win.

As with an early general election, a second Brexit referendum would also require the United Kingdom to postpone or suspend Brexit to buy time. The original Brexit referendum took 13 months to organize. Even if the British government pushes hard to streamline the process, it seems unlikely that London could manage to hold another referendum by March 29.

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