Special Briefing: Was That the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement’s Last Gasp?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
After another parliamentary defeat, what are the U.K. government’s Brexit options?
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What happened? U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a historic defeat on her Brexit withdrawal bill in January. So, in a last-ditch effort to save it as Britain stares down a March 29 deadline to reach a deal, she went back to negotiate with the European Union over the Irish border backstop, an agreement that would avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The backstop, which has been contentious for hardline Brexiters, would keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union past December 2020 if the EU and U.K. don’t have a deal worked out to keep it open by then. May returned with a legal add-on that would allow the U.K. to challenge the backstop via formal dispute proceedings — something allowed by the withdrawal agreement already — in a way that May insists is legally binding. Unfortunately, her own Attorney General Geoffrey Cox almost immediately published his opinion that the changes amount to nothing of substance. MPs also were not impressed: They voted the deal down today by 391 to 242, which was better than last time but still not enough.
Why does it matter? Legislators may now have to choose between no deal — supported by some but predicted to be catastrophic for U.K. industry, trade and even food supplies — and extending the Brexit deadline. There are other factions demanding a second referendum, dubbed a “People’s Vote,” to avoid a no-deal exit without inflaming tensions among Leave voters over their voices being ignored. And others say the U.K. should cancel Brexit altogether, something European officials say is still feasible.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
What next? Due to the prime minister’s decision to start the clock on Brexit two years ago, the U.K. will automatically leave the EU on March 29 — ready or not — unless legislators act to stop it. With the withdrawal agreement out of the picture, Parliament is still deeply divided over the way forward. Next up are a series of votes: Tomorrow, MPs will be asked whether to leave the EU without a deal, and if (as expected) they opt not to they’ll be asked whether they want to delay the date of exit. If they choose to postpone, all 27 EU countries will have to approve it, which could happen at a summit scheduled for the end of next week. May could also skip those votes and ask the EU for a delay directly.
What’s in a deadline? Should the U.K. ask for an extension, EU briefings have indicated the new date could be May 24. That’s an eight-week delay and falls shortly after EU elections begin. The U.K. has announced it won’t take part in those elections, due to plans to leave the EU, but if it’s still in the bloc after those votes it could be breaching legal protocol by not electing any members to the European Parliament.
A leadership crisis. Even before May lost her vote today, multiple Cabinet ministers were pressuring her to resign, hopeful that a new leader could win over party hardliners who’ve pressed for a no-deal scenario despite warnings of recession and medicine shortages if it takes place. May has promised not to run in the next general election — currently planned for 2020 — but some in her party are already reportedly mounting quiet bids to take the top spot, including Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who spearheaded the original Brexit campaign and later served as foreign secretary, as well as former Brexit minister Dominic Raab.
Another round. While the opposition Labour Party has backed the idea of a second referendum to decide whether people still support Brexit, its leadership pulled back this week on the plan to add an amendment on a second referendum to today’s vote. Officials in the People’s Vote campaign reportedly asked politicians not to push too hard for another plebiscite until all other options had been exhausted in Parliament.
WHAT TO READ
Legal Opinion on Joint Instrument and Unilateral Declaration Concerning the Withdrawal Agreement by U.K. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox
“The legal risk remains unchanged that … the United Kingdom would have … no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.”
London’s Finance Industry Has Decided: Brexit Is Already a Reality, by Max Colchester and Patricia Kowsmann in The Wall Street Journal
“Mrs. May has so far done little to prioritize keeping access for U.K. financial players to the rest of the EU. A 36-page draft proposal on future trade relations with the EU includes three paragraphs on the finance industry, which accounts for around 7 percent of the British economy.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Theresa May on Brexit Deal: We Have Secured What MPs Asked For
“It makes a legal commitment that the U.K. and the EU will begin work immediately to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by the end of December 2020.”
Watch on the BBC on YouTube:
A Brief History of Brexit for Americans
“Basically, Remainers think her deal is too harsh and Leavers think it’s too soft, which might sound like a good compromise … but remember, everyone’s an asshole.”
Watch on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
A common law? There are thousands of EU regulations in operation in the U.K. that will need to be transferred wholesale into British law by Brexit Day, governing things as varied as Iran sanctions, blood safety and the importation of cat fur. Many of these will need amending by statutory instrument — but with time running short, there may not be time to debate and approve them all. That could mean lawmakers require a delay to Brexit … or that industries dependent on those regulations in the U.K. are thrown into chaos.