Mar 9, 2019 | 14:00 GMT

7 mins read

The Stark Choices Ahead as a Brexit Reckoning Nears

Even if the British Parliament again rejects her government's Brexit plan, Prime Minister Theresa May could delay a further vote until closer to the March 29 deadline.
Stratfor's geopolitical guidance provides insight on what we're watching out for in the week ahead.

After a long and grueling negotiations process, the United Kingdom and the European Union reached an agreement on the details of an orderly Brexit in November 2018 — only for the British House of Commons to reject the deal in January. Then, last month, lawmakers asked Prime Minister Theresa May's government to renegotiate the section of the agreement that would keep the country in a customs arrangement with the bloc until the sides can find a permanent solution that will keep the border between Northern Ireland and EU member the Republic of Ireland open, lest its closure reignite sectarian problems on the island. Since then, May and her team have gone back-and-forth with Brussels, searching for a way to make the so-called Irish backstop easier for the Commons to accept, but an agreement remains elusive. With the United Kingdom's scheduled March 29 departure day drawing ever-nearer, a series of expected votes in the country's Parliament next week will determine Brexit's future.

The Big Picture

As the March 29 Brexit date approaches, the British House of Commons will have to make crucial decisions about the country's future. Next week, lawmakers will have to decide whether to approve the exit agreement that London negotiated with Brussels, leave without a deal or ask the European Union for more time. 

What Will Happen Next Week?

  • On March 12, the British government will once again submit the withdrawal agreement to a vote in the House of Commons. British officials and Brussels are currently negotiating tweaks to the Irish backstop. Hard-line Brexiteers want to build in a sunset provision on the backstop or, alternatively, a clause that would permit the United Kingdom to unilaterally terminate it. Brussels, however, has rejected both options, offering instead only additional promises that the backstop is not intended to be permanent. As a result, the document that the Commons will consider on March 12 won't likely be very different from the one it rejected in January by a vote of 432 to 202. 
  • If parliamentarians reject the withdrawal agreement on March 12, May's government has promised to ask them to vote on the following day on whether they wish to exit the European Union without a deal. Given such a stark choice, it's likely that the Commons would reject a disorderly Brexit. 
  • If the proposal for a no-deal exit fails, then lawmakers are expected to vote on March 14 whether to ask the European Union to delay Brexit. This would require extending the negotiation period between Brussels and London as per Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
  • The Commons endorsed the March 13-14 votes in a nonbinding resolution. But while the government will be under great duress follow through with scheduling the votes on those dates, May still could decide to postpone them and instead seek a third vote on her withdrawal agreement before proceeding with the votes on a no-deal exit and a Brexit delay.

How Will Next Week's Expected Votes Affect the Brexit Process?

  • The results of the likely series of votes in the coming days reduce the probability of a no-deal Brexit on March 29. There is a significant chance that the Commons will either approve May's deal (therefore leading to an orderly Brexit) or vote to delay Brexit by the end of March.
  • Nevertheless, three scenarios could lead to a no-deal Brexit on March 29: 
  • The Commons could reject May's deal on March 12 and then vote to leave without a deal. 
  • The Commons could reject May's deal, a no-deal Brexit and any plans to delay Brexit. Such obstinacy is improbable, however, as a majority of lawmakers also oppose a no-deal Brexit. 
  • Third, should May's government lose the March 12 vote, it could abandon its promise to hold votes about the future of Brexit. That, however, is also unlikely, since the Commons endorsed those votes last week and the government has indicated it does not want a no-deal Brexit. 
The British Parliament could have several key votes ahead as it once again mulls the government's Brexit plan

Could the EU Give the U.K. More Time?

  • Any request from London to delay Brexit is contingent on the unanimous approval of the other 27 EU member states. The European Union would probably agree to give London more time, although it would probably ask May's government for greater detail about how it plans to use the extension.
  • The two sides would also negotiate over the duration of the delay. May suggested a "short" delay — in which her country would leave the bloc by around June — so that it does not have to participate in elections for the EU Parliament in late May. But some British officials and EU governments have suggested that for permanent solutions on issues like the Irish border to be worked out would take a much longer period.  

What Would the U.K. Do With the Extra Time?

The British government would have several options if the bloc gave it more time to draft a new Brexit plan. It could:

  • Make the existing deal easier for the Commons to accept. This would echo the strategy that May pursued after the Commons rejected the withdrawal agreement in January. Such a plan would entail additional negotiations with the European Union to modify the controversial Irish backstop. But the first time May pursued the strategy, it failed because Brussels refused to substantially alter the conditions for the Irish backstop.
  • Negotiate a new deal. The British government could seek a softer Brexit, including an option to, for example, remain in the EU customs union. While this strategy could win support from many Labour Party lawmakers, it would irritate a large number of those from the Conservative Party.
  • Call for an early election. If the current House of Commons cannot find a majority to approve any kind of Brexit deal, then one solution might be an early general election to form a new House of Commons. This would allow the parties to campaign on their preferred version of Brexit and obtain popular legitimacy to pursue it. However, there are no guarantees that a new Commons would be any less fragmented than the current one. 
  • Hold another referendum. There are three ways in which a second Brexit referendum could occur. 
  • May could change her mind and call for a vote herself. 
  • Alternatively, the Commons could outvote the government and call for a referendum. 
  • However, a Labour victory in an early general election would be the most conducive to another referendum. Initially, a Labour-led government would probably seek to negotiate its own Brexit terms with Brussels, but it could go to the people once more if those negotiations failed to produce an agreement. 

Delaying Brexit would not reduce the uncertainty about the future of the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union, as questions about when, how and even whether it will occur would remain unanswered.

What Are the Implications of Delaying Brexit?

  • While removing the March 29 deadline would reduce the short-term uncertainty surrounding Brexit, questions would still remain over when, how and even whether Brexit would eventually occur. 
  • Postponing the departure would mean that the United Kingdom would remain a full member of the European Union until the next exit date. Accordingly, no disruptions in trade, travel or any relationship between the pair would occur before that time, but uncertainty about the final shape of Brexit would still take its toll on the British and EU economies.
  • Pushing Brexit to a later date would also prolong uncertainty about the future of the Irish border. The deal that May agreed with Brussels envisioned an open border, but if London ultimately scraps this plan, British and EU negotiators would need to look for new ways to keep it open. 

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