Five ways forward for Brexit

Theresa May has reached out to Labour to solve the Brexit impasse, and still has other options - but a lot will depend on flexibility from Brussels.

Writing this piece has been a lot like watching Brexit for the past nearly three years. In the beginning, you have a clear idea of where it is going. But Theresa May and the House of Commons find a way to throw the process off entirely, resulting in multiple twists and turns that leave you both exasperated and confused, hoping you’re able to make sense of everything in the end.

Last Friday, the British Prime Minister brought the agreement negotiated with the European Union to the British Parliament for a third meaningful vote, in the hope of getting the deal over the line. She had failed, as she had on the first two occasions – but the gap has begun to narrow. Some, including myself, expected her to try to force a fourth vote on the matter by making some cosmetic changes to allow it to be voted on in the house by mid-week. But she opted for a rather unexpected path.

In an attempt to see the agreement’s approval in Parliament, she announced on Tuesday that she would work with Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn to work towards a compromise on Brexit that could obtain the support of a majority. It will be a tall order, and a perilous tightrope balancing act for both party leaders, with both having much to lose.

If May is unable to get the Withdrawal Agreement through on any potential fourth attempt, there are a number of options which are technically available. They are not mutually exclusive, and some may work in tandem. But a lot will depend on whether her fellow European leaders still believe in her ability to deliver Brexit, and they will look to balance the potential for a no deal Brexit with the need to avoid disrupting European parliamentary elections.

These are the UK’s options at present:

A (longer?) delay to Brexit

The British Prime Minister has alluded to her preference to obtain a second (but short) extension from Brussels to negotiate a mutually-satisfactory Brexit package with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.

Last week, media outlets had reported that the European Council was working on potential options for Brexit, which include a possible extension to March 2020. This, does not appear to be on the cards at present from the UK government’s perspective – but a lot will depend on the flexibility, if any, which is shown by the other 27 heads of state of the EU during the European Council meeting scheduled for April 10th.

The UK would need to provide a material reason for why it requires such an extension of any length and these political discussions may qualify. But the EU may request that the extension is tied to something more definitive, such as the UK holding a General Election or second referendum. This option may face opposition from French President Emmanuel Macron, who wants to avoid having the issue of Brexit influencing European political developments (such as the nomination of the Presidents of the Commission, Council and Parliament) both during, and after the European Parliamentary elections.

If the House of Commons rejects any Brexit agreement negotiated between May and Corbyn, it may be difficult to persuade the EU to grant an extension. Not to mention that European Commission President Juncker has voiced his opposition to any potential short-term extension, and his words carry weight. In any case, the EU has ruled out a renegotiation of the Withdrawal agreement which was reached between Brussels and London in December, so the British Prime Minister may have to opt for a longer extension if talks with the opposition fail. Again, if the EU will allow it.

No deal Brexit

The major political parties do not support a hard Brexit, with the exception of a few within the Tory party. There have been reports of a sense of Brexit fatigue amongst the British public, which may lead to a hardening of those on the Leave side, rather than a switch over to remaining in the EU.

The British Parliament has also passed through a resolution late on Wednesday night, by a one-vote margin, to avoid a no deal Brexit in any scenario, and to request an extension from the EU should an agreement fail in the House of Commons.

Theresa May herself has made it clear that she prefers to leave the EU with some form of deal in place, to avoid any economic disruption to trade and businesses. At present, a no deal Brexit appears has looked more likely between now and April 12th, the deadline set by the EU for the UK to “provide a way forward” on the Brexit issue. In the case of an extension to Brexit, it becomes less and less likely.

General Election

Without any form of Parliamentary consensus, Theresa May may have no choice but to call a General Election – the third one since 2015, reflecting the havoc which Brexit has wrought on the British political system, and the Tory party in particular. This would require a two-thirds parliamentary majority to happen, and while the Labour party can be expected to support it enthusiastically, the Conservatives are losing support in the polls and will try to steer away from losing grip over Downing Street.

Once again, May is caught between a rock and a hard place.

Revocation of Article 50

Difficult to see this happening, given the lack of support from the British government and opposition. While there is still considerable support by those who voted for Remain in 2016, this is not currently part of the conversation at Westminster or Downing Street.

This could change in a scenario where the UK is granted an extension by the EU, and it becomes apparent that no Parliamentary support exists for any given outcome, whether there be a General Election or not.

Referendum

For those who voted for Remain, this is probably their best and only hope. However, it does appear to be, at this point, less likely than a General Election.

Theresa May has made it clear that she is not looking to pursue this option, as it would go against the first referendum. Having invested so much time and effort rubbishing this option, it would be hard to see her change her mind.

On the other hand, a referendum may be more likely in the case of a longer Brexit extension, to confirm any negotiated settlement with Brussels or in the case of a total parliamentary deadlock.

To conclude, there are few, if any attractive ways out of the Brexit mess from Theresa May’s standpoint. While a Brexit extension is on the cards, the Conservatives are likely to pay a heavy price at the polls in the future for their handling of Brexit, from David Cameron’s fair-weather stewardship to Theresa May’s ineffective attempt to steer her party and country behind her. Brexit is not over just yet; it still has a few more scalps to claim.

More in Blogs