How Brexit Could Play Out as the Deadline Draws Near

11 MINS READOct 14, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, right, greets his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, on Oct. 10, 2019, in Liverpool, England.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, right, greets his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, on Oct. 10, 2019, in Liverpool, England.

(NOEL MULLEN/Irish Government Press Office via Getty Images)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will meet with the rest of the leaders of the European Union in a summit in Brussels on Oct. 17 in what will probably be the last chance to reach an exit agreement before Brexit day on Oct. 31. Then on Oct. 19, the British Parliament will hold an extraordinary session to assess the outcome of the summit and to decide what to do next.

The Big Picture

The recent announcement of "intense" negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom has raised hopes of a deal to secure an orderly Brexit on Oct. 31, but significant obstacles remain. First, London would have to soften its pledge of exiting the EU customs union. And second, the British government would have to persuade Parliament to ratify a deal. If no deal is reached, the British government will be under legal and political pressure to ask the European Union to delay Brexit.

A last-minute agreement between London and Brussels is still possible, especially if the United Kingdom agrees to keep at least Northern Ireland in a customs arrangement with the European Union, which would avoid the need for a hard border on the island. But if no agreement is reached, Johnson will be under legal pressure to ask the European Union for an extension. If he does not, the British opposition could oust him through a no-confidence motion. Considering the current fragmentation of the House of Commons, which will continue to severely complicate the legislative process, a general election in late 2019 or early 2020 is probable.

The Players

Brexit has three main players, each with its own goals. The European Union wants to avoid a no-deal Brexit to avoid multiple economic disruptions when most of the economies in the bloc are already slowing down. But at a time when nationalist and Euroskeptic parties are popular in several EU countries, the European Union also wants to show that leaving the bloc is not easy or painless. Brussels also wants to protect the integrity of the European single market, the area where goods, services, people and capital move freely. The European Union feels that if the United Kingdom is allowed to enjoy the benefits of some parts of the single market (for example, the free movement of goods) without having to accede to some obligations typically required to receive such benefits (such as the free movement of people), then other countries could demand the same privilege. Finally, the European Union supports the Republic of Ireland in its desire to prevent Brexit from leading to a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, since that would threaten peace on the island.

The British government meanwhile wants to leave the single market and customs union so that it is no longer under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice; doesn't have to contribute to the EU budget, enforce EU norms and regulations, or accept workers from EU member states; and is free to sign trade agreements around the world. But if the United Kingdom leaves the customs union, controls at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would probably be needed to oversee products moving from one market to the other. Johnson insists that his main goal is to reach a deal, but he has also promised that the United Kingdom will leave Oct. 31 with or without a deal. This insistence in part derives from recent electoral losses by the Conservative Party to the Brexit Party, which defends the idea of leaving without a deal. Johnson wants an early general election as soon as possible because his government lacks a parliamentary majority, and so has little to no ability to assure the passage of legislation on its own. His tough rhetoric on Brexit represents a bid to prepare for an electoral campaign should he fail to reach a deal with Brussels.

The final player is the British opposition, which includes the Labour Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Scottish National Party and a group of former Conservative members of Parliament who either left the party or were expelled because of their disagreements with government policy. These varied players have one thing in common: All want to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Last month, the opposition approved a law, the Benn Act, establishing that the British government must request an extension from the European Union if no agreement has been found by Oct. 19.

The Irish Headache

On Oct. 2, Johnson unveiled a proposal to keep the Irish border open after Brexit. According to his plan, Northern Ireland will remain aligned with EU rules and standards on goods, food and agricultural products, but the United Kingdom will leave the customs union and the single market. London proposed holding customs controls far from the Irish border, and to rely on yet-to-be tested technology to track goods and on a network of "trusted traders" to minimize disruptions on the Irish border. London also proposed that Northern Ireland's governing assembly be given the power to vote on whether to remain aligned with EU rules and norms every four years.

The European Union, however, rejected most of the proposals, arguing that they would fail to keep the Irish border open (since the United Kingdom would leave the customs union) while making the future of the deal subject to political developments in Northern Ireland (since votes every four years would create uncertainty). In the past, London and Brussels discussed plans to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union while the rest of the United Kingdom left it. But unionist parties in Northern Ireland continue to resist this approach, since they believe granting Northern Ireland a different legal status from the rest of the United Kingdom could be the prelude to Irish reunification.

The Possible Outcomes

A meeting between Johnson and his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, on Oct. 10 created some optimism that a solution for the Irish border dilemma could be found. Then on Oct. 11, Michel Barnier, the chief EU Brexit negotiator, announced that talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom will enter the so-called tunnel phase, where negotiators discuss the legal details of a deal in meetings where the offers and counteroffers are not disclosed to the press. While tunnel talks are a precondition for a deal, as long as London insists on leaving the customs union, a solution will remain elusive.

A flowchart of possible Brexit scenarios.

For a deal to take place, London would probably have to accept either keeping the whole of the United Kingdom in the customs union or, more likely, allowing Northern Ireland to stay in it. The issue of giving the Northern Irish assembly a vote is less complicated, since London, Dublin and Brussels can find ways to give Northern Irish lawmakers some degree of participation in the solution to the Irish border problem without really giving them veto power over the overall agreement. If a deal is reached Oct. 17, there is a decent chance that the House of Commons would approve it considering that the alternative would probably be a no-deal Brexit two weeks later.

If no agreement is reached on Oct. 17, Johnson will have to make a difficult decision. He could enforce the Benn Act and ask the European Union for an extension, which Brussels is likely to accept considering that it wants to avoid the economic disruptions connected to a hard Brexit. But this would come at a high political price for a prime minister who has repeatedly promised that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on Oct. 31. In this scenario, after asking the European Union for more time, Johnson would probably ask the House of Commons to authorize a general election to break the stalemate in Parliament.

Alternatively, Johnson could decide not to ask the EU for an extension and resign. This would force the House of Commons to appoint a replacement. In this scenario, the caretaker prime minister would probably lead a very short-lived government with two basic goals: asking the European Union for an extension, and then organizing a general election.

If instead Johnson doesn't resign and refuses to enforce the Benn Act, the British political crisis would dramatically escalate. The British Supreme Court could force Johnson to ask the European Union for a delay, but how fast this might happen remains unclear. Alternatively, the opposition could trigger a no-confidence motion against the prime minister. If Johnson lost the motion, Parliament would have 14 days to appoint a replacement. If no replacement could be found, then a general election would be required. Though the opposition has so far failed to come up with a candidate for prime minister whom all of its constituent parts can support, in such an extreme scenario, Johnson's rivals would probably put their differences aside and agree on a new prime minister — who would then go to Brussels and ask for an extension. In this scenario, a general election would almost certainly follow, as the opposition has little in common other than its desire to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Johnson could even ask for the confidence motion himself, hoping to lose it and then hold an election he could win.

The Big Election Gamble

Most of the scenarios after the Oct. 17 summit involve a general election, because the British government does not hold a parliamentary majority and the opposition is fragmented — making the current political situation unsustainable.

If Johnson reaches a deal with the European Union and there is an orderly Brexit on Oct. 31, new elections will take place in late 2019 or early 2020 in a context of economic and political calm, because the United Kingdom will remain in the single market and customs union during a transitional period until December 2020 and things will not significantly change for households and companies in the United Kingdom. In this context, the election will matter because voters will appoint a government that is in charge of negotiating future economic and political ties with the European Union.

Even in the case of a hard Brexit, the European Union and the United Kingdom would at some point start negotiations over their future political and economic ties.

If Johnson fails to reach a deal with the European Union and the United Kingdom asks for an extension, then a no-deal Brexit will be postponed for a few months but not necessarily avoided. The European Union is likely to grant an extension linked to a general election in hopes the vote could result in a new British government more amenable to a deal, a government that wants to organize a new Brexit referendum or even a government that decides to remain in the European Union.

But a general election could result in a government very different from what the European Union wants. The Conservative Party will campaign on a promise of making Brexit happen at any cost because Johnson wants to win back those voters who recently migrated to the Brexit Party. Moreover, Johnson is likely to campaign on a populist platform that accuses the European Union and the opposition of blocking the will of the people and betraying the result of the Brexit referendum that began the whole torturous process. For its part, Labour is likely to struggle to come up with a coherent message, since some of its sectors want to negotiate a deal with the European Union while others want to hold another Brexit referendum.

Opinion polls suggest that three years after the referendum, a significant part of the electorate still wants Brexit to happen, which could result in a victory by the Brexit hard-liners that would once again increase the chances of a no-deal Brexit at some point in 2020. Complicating matters, an early election could also result in a hung Parliament that struggles to appoint a government and then to approve a Brexit deal.

Finally, if Johnson manages to circumvent the Benn Act and remain in power, he could schedule a general election to happen right after a no-deal Brexit. In this scenario, he would be interested in holding the vote as soon as possible so that the electorate would not have fully felt the economic impact of a hard Brexit by the time it goes to the polls. Even in the case of a hard Brexit, the European Union and the United Kingdom would start negotiations at some point over their future political and economic ties, which means that an election under these circumstances would matter because voters would have to choose between different proposals on how to manage EU-British relations in the coming years.

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