Mar 12, 2019 | 21:33 GMT

4 mins read

U.K.: Another Brexit Defeat in Parliament Narrows May's Options

The Big Picture

The United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union on March 29, but the British government is still struggling to convince the House of Commons to approve the exit deal it negotiated with Brussels. Should British lawmakers fail to approve a deal by the end of the month, delaying Brexit will still be possible, but a disorderly Brexit cannot be ruled out.

What Happened

The House of Commons dealt another blow to the Brexit agreement that the British government negotiated with the European Union, rejecting it by a 391-242 vote and creating more uncertainty about the future of the country only 17 days before the scheduled British exit from the European Union. Parliament previously rejected the withdrawal agreement in a 432-202 vote in January.

Why It Happened

As in January, the main reason behind the rejection of the withdrawal agreement is the so-called Irish backstop, a clause to keep the United Kingdom in a permanent customs arrangement with the European Union until a better solution is found for keeping the Irish border open. On March 11, Brussels provided additional reassurances to London that the customs arrangement is not meant to be permanent, but this was not enough to convince British lawmakers. A legal opinion by British Attorney General Geoffrey Cox on March 12 held that the new reassurances reduce, but do not eliminate, the chances of the United Kingdom being trapped in a customs union with the European Union indefinitely. This probably contributed to the most recent rejection of the withdrawal agreement.

While today's defeat is certainly politically painful for British Prime Minister Theresa May, it does not necessarily signal a disorderly Brexit by the end of the month.

What Happens Next

While today's defeat is certainly politically painful for British Prime Minister Theresa May, it does not necessarily signal a disorderly Brexit by the end of the month. The House of Commons will vote March 13 on whether to leave the European Union without a deal on March 29. May has said that Conservative members of parliament will be given a free vote, which means that the government will not officially ask them to vote one way or another. In the likely event that lawmakers vote against leaving without an agreement, another vote will be held March 14 on whether to ask the European Union to delay Brexit. Lawmakers are likely to vote yes, at which point London will have to formally ask Brussels to extend the negotiation period. Under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the governments of the other 27 EU members would have to approve this request unanimously.

The European Union is likely to grant the United Kingdom more time, but negotiations between London and Brussels will focus on two issues. The first will be the duration of the delay. May has said she wants a short extension, potentially until late June, to make sure that the United Kingdom does not have to participate in the elections for the European Parliament in late May. But some EU governments have expressed interest in a longer delay to guarantee enough time to reach an exit agreement that both London and Brussels can accept.

The second focus will be what exactly the United Kingdom plans to do during the extra time it wants. London could ask to renegotiate the Irish backstop, but the European Union is unlikely to make additional concessions on the issue. London could instead try to negotiate a softer Brexit to, for example, remain in the EU customs union, but this would exacerbate divisions within the governing Conservative party. London would also have two riskier options: a general election, or a referendum either on May's deal or on whether to actually leave the European Union after all; the latter referendum topic would become more probable in the event of a general election that the opposition Labour Party wins. In the meantime, May will be fighting for her political survival as calls for her resignation doubtlessly intensify.

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