Brexit – what now?

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With just 16 days until the UK is due to leave the European Union, we still do not know the terms of the UK’s departure, whether the UK will leave on 29 March or later, or indeed if the UK will leave at all.

Last night’s second meaningful vote in the House of Commons leaves the Brexit process as confused as it was after the first vote which was held on 15 January. The SPICe blog published after the first vote summarised the challenges facing the Prime Minister in finalising a Withdrawal Agreement. Those challenges remain.

Last night’s defeat by 149 votes despite the extra reassurances provided by the EU that the backstop is not meant to be a permanent arrangement led to the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, suggesting that the current version of the Withdrawal Agreement “is clearly dead and does not have the support of the House”.

EU reaction

The House of Commons’ decision last night was met with disappointment in Brussels and a sense that the EU can do no more to assist with getting the Withdrawal Agreement endorsed. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator tweeted:

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What now?

In the short term the House of Commons has been asked to make two decisions.

First, it will vote on 13 March on whether it wishes the UK to leave the EU without a deal.

If there is a vote to avoid no-deal, on 14 March the House of Commons will get a further vote at which it can indicate whether it wishes the UK Government to seek an extension to the two-year Article 50 period – if an extension were agreed unanimously by the other 27 EU Member States, it would postpone the current Brexit day of 29 March.

Future Brexit scenarios

If the House of Commons fails to request an extension to the Article 50 period or if the EU Member State Governments refuse such a request, the default position is that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March, irrespective of whether a Withdrawal Agreement has been finalised.

Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s statement that the current Withdrawal Agreement is “clearly dead”, at this stage there is nothing to stop the Prime Minister bringing forward a third meaningful vote. This appears less likely to be successful in the short term if MPs vote to take no-deal off the table and request an Article 50 extension. Given the EU response to last night’s vote suggested there was no more it could do on the Withdrawal Agreement, it is unlikely the substance of the Agreement is going to change at this stage. The only way it might change is if the UK Government indicates a willingness to change its red lines as was discussed in the SPICe blog published after the first meaningful vote.

If an extension to the Article 50 period is requested, a consideration will be the length of time of any extension. European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker wrote that the UK’s withdrawal should be complete before the European Elections on 23-26 May 2019. The implication of the Commission President’s position appears to be that failure to leave before this time would mean the UK would need to participate in those elections. The contents of the letter also suggest that a short extension period might be possible.

However, others have suggested the EU would prefer a longer extension period – possibly to the end of 2020. At this stage EU Member State Governments have yet to formally discuss a request for an Article 50 extension. It is therefore not clear whether such an extension would be granted, or what conditions might be placed on such an extension.

The EU’s consideration of an Article 50 extension will also include considering the purpose of any extension. For example, would it be to allow the UK to seek a different approach, potentially involving a change to its red lines or would it merely be playing for time? A short extension for instance might not allow for any substantive change to the UK approach and might in effect just move the possibility of a no-deal Brexit to 23 May.   In this scenario it’s possible the Prime Minister might seek to bring her Withdrawal Agreement back to the House of Commons for another vote at some point before the UK again potentially leaves the EU with no-deal.

In contrast, an extension for a longer period might allow the UK Government to pursue other options such as a referendum or allow for a general election to take place.

A final option open to the UK Government would be to revoke Article 50 and revert to remaining in the EU. This possibility was confirmed by the European Court of Justice ruling in December 2018 that Article 50 could be unilaterally revoked by the UK Government.

The role of the House of Commons

A key reason why predicting what might happen in relation to Brexit is so difficult is because there does not appear to be a majority for any particular course of action in the House of Commons. Whilst it may agree that no-deal shouldn’t happen and that the Article 50 period should be extended, it is not clear there is a majority for any approach that might positively resolve the Brexit impasse.

Unless the House of Commons chooses to coalesce around a specific direction of travel, the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement will continue to be a live option if the UK wishes to avoid a no-deal Brexit either on 29 March or following a short extension.

Iain McIver, SPICe Research