The European Union and the United Kingdom are trying to avoid a disorderly Brexit, but they are running out of time and ideas to do so. Last week, the bloc accepted a British request to delay Brexit and give the United Kingdom more time to approve an exit agreement, but London is still struggling to convince a deeply fragmented House of Commons to back a deal. A no-deal Brexit on April 12 is still the default legal outcome if the sides can't find a solution.
As the United Kingdom's day of European reckoning draws inexorably closer, the country is still no nearer to approving a Brexit deal to avoid a disorderly exit from the European Union. On March 29, the House of Commons rejected the withdrawal agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom by a margin of 58 votes. This is the third time that British lawmakers have rejected the deal, after striking it down by a whopping 230 votes in January and 149 votes earlier this month.
What It Means
The vote sends London back to the drawing board to find new ways to prevent a disorderly Brexit on April 12, the current date for the country's departure from the Continental bloc. After the latest defeat of her deal, Prime Minister Theresa May said her government would continue working to prevent a no-deal Brexit, but this will require a series of politically sensitive decisions by the British government.
First, the United Kingdom would have to formally ask the European Union for yet another delay to its Brexit date (the original departure date has already been delayed once, from March 29 to April 12). The bloc is likely to accept such a request, but only so long as the United Kingdom agrees to participate in elections for the European Parliament in late May and the British government presents a concrete plan on just what it plans to do with the extension.
In theory, the United Kingdom could try to put the withdrawal agreement to a fourth vote in the next two weeks. After all, May's margins of defeat have not been slender, but they are decreasing with every vote. But the prime minister's team is running out of ideas to convince the parliamentary speaker to authorize new votes on a document that legislators have already rejected three times. Alternatively, the United Kingdom could shift strategy and decide that it wants a softer form of Brexit to, for example, remain in the bloc's customs union. In a series of votes that took place on March 27, the House of Commons rejected several alternative Brexit scenarios, but remaining in the customs union was the option that lost by the narrowest margin (just eight votes). But while pursuing a softer Brexit could convince some opposition members of Parliament to support the government, it would also exacerbate the divisions within May's own Conservative Party.
The prime minister's team is running out of ideas to convince the parliamentary speaker to authorize new votes on a document that legislators have already rejected three times.
Against this backdrop, the chances of an early general election are rising. May hinted at this on March 29 when she said "we are reaching the limits" of what the current House of Commons can do to avoid a disorderly Brexit. May, however, cannot do this alone: Under British law, support from two-thirds of the Commons is necessary to hold an early general election. While Labour would support an early vote, May would have to persuade her own party to hold a vote with unforeseeable consequences. She could also resign, but that would (at least initially) not trigger an early election but an internal process within the Conservative Party to appoint a new leader, who would then become prime minister.
More Votes Next Week
Parliament will write the next chapter in the Brexit saga on April 1, when it is scheduled to hold a second round of "indicative votes" on different Brexit options. This week's votes only confirmed the current fragmentation among members of Parliament, as they rejected all options (ranging from a no-deal exit to membership in the EU single market). But a ticking clock could convince lawmakers to finally throw their weight behind a new Brexit plan, which would give the government a mandate to negotiate a different Brexit. Divided among themselves, members of Parliament have repeatedly disagreed on just about everything about Brexit, but the government is running out of time to implement the only choice that most lawmakers agree on — a deal that prevents a disorderly departure from the European Union.