Facing the near certain prospect of a catastrophic defeat, British Prime Minister Theresa May has postponed Parliament’s vote on the deal she struck with the European Union on the terms of her country’s departure from the EU. It is not clear what she gains from delay. There are no good options for dealing with Brexit (as the process is called), and there is little sign that British politicians or the public know how to proceed.
The British Parliament was supposed to vote on Brexit on Tuesday. Debate not only confirmed that the country and the ruling Conservative Party remained deeply divided over the issue, but also that May’s withdrawal proposal was getting less, rather than more, popular. As the vote approached, Tory Whips believed that the government would lose the support of over 100 members of their own party.
A defeat of that magnitude would threaten not just the May government but Conservative rule. The opposition Labour Party would demand a vote of no confidence: Party chief Jeremy Corbyn charges that the government is in “disarray” and has already called for a general election, which his party would likely win given the disgust that has been sparked by the entire Brexit mess.
An election is only possible, however, if members of the government — either Conservatives or members of the Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Irish party that has supported May — back the no-confidence motion. Angry as they are at May, they are still unlikely to give Labour, and Corbyn, who they detest, the opening they need.
May is using the delay to go back to Brussels to reopen discussions on the deal. European officials have made it clear that they are not prepared to oblige her. As European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted, “We will not renegotiate the deal. …”
The principal objection to May’s proposal is the status of Northern Ireland. The country of Ireland is part of the EU; Britain’s withdrawal would draw a hard line between the two parts of the island, which is utterly anathema to the Irish and many in the province. Division would threaten the peace agreement struck in 1999 that ended decades of violence and has saved thousands of lives. According to the May plan, Britain would stay in the EU customs union indefinitely — which means EU regulations on trade would continue to apply — until London and Brussels can strike a deal that avoids a “hard border” within Ireland.
This infuriates Brexit supporters, for whom the point of the entire exercise is to escape EU supervision and regain sovereignty. Those advocates also insist that Britain can retain a relationship with the EU that gives them all the advantages of membership without any of the perceived liabilities, which generally means taxes paid to Brussels or having to observe EU rules on immigration.
What they fail to recognize — or pretend not to — is that Brussels cannot let Britain have that arrangement. A la carte membership, in which members can pick the parts of association they like and discard those they do not, would be the end of the EU. If London gets that deal, every government would take it and the entire project would unravel. What is not clear is whether Brexit supporters see that as their goal, rather than the mere reframing of their own country’s status.
May has gained time, but she still has no good options. Parliament is not going to pass the deal on the table; the EU is not going to reopen it. May has said that she will not consider a second referendum on the issue, arguing that the people have spoken; the legal basis of any such vote would be unclear as well.
What is certain is that the deadline for a deal — for British withdrawal, not even the terms of its future association; that is the next step in the process — is March 29. Failure to reach agreement would yield the “no-deal Brexit,” which would have catastrophic consequences for the country. Economists forecast a recession worse than that of a decade ago and shortages of food, medicine and other daily necessities.
The uncertainty could poison U.K. relations with foreign investors, particularly Japanese companies that use Britain as their springboard for doing business with Europe. They are already reconsidering their plans. Business planners abhor a vacuum, and it is hard to imagine a process more chaotic than that which is unfolding. May has won a reprieve, but it is only temporary. Nothing has changed, except the time remaining until the Brexit deadline.