On this day in 2019 the UK was meant to leave the EU
Since the invocation of the now-famous Article 50 by Britain two years ago, a section of Leave voters has been advocating to declare March 29th a national holiday. Today, there is scarcely any reason for celebration.
Prime Minister Theresa May, a reformed Remainer, argued for the delivery of Brexit to respect the will of the people and pushed for hard negotiations with the EU to finally hammer out a withdrawal agreement in November 2018. By that date, two successive Secretaries of State for Exiting the European Union, MP David Davies and MP Dominic Raab, had tendered their resignations.
In the 19 weeks since that draft agreement, the Brexit rollercoaster sped into its most dramatic twists and turns yet. Negotiations with Brussels would, arguably, prove to be easier than with the Cabinet of Secretaries; a visibly subdued Theresa May admitted to the nation that “choices were difficult” when she announced the government’s agreement with the withdrawal accord.
Fast-forward to today
MPs have rejected Theresa May’s Brexit deal for a third time, by 344 votes to 286, despite the prime minister’s offer to her Tory colleagues that she would resign if it passed.
EU Council President Donald Tusk has announced that in view of the rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement by the House of Commons, he decided to call a European Council on 10 April.
Earlier after the British parliament for the third time rejected British Prime Minister Theresa May’s divorce deal with the European Union, the European Commission on Friday said a no-deal Brexit on April 12 was now “likely”.
In a statement the European Commission said that it regrets the negative vote in the House of Commons today, adding that the EU has given London until April 12 to inform it of the next steps. “It will be for the UK to indicate the way forward before that date.”
“A ‘no-deal’ scenario on 12 April is now a likely scenario. The EU… is now fully prepared for a ‘no-deal’ scenario at midnight on 12 April” the statement added.
The Commission also warned that the divorce terms without the failed Withdrawal Agreement would be much worse.
On Wednesday MPs didn’t back any alternative Brexit.
Option B: Leave the EU without a deal on 12 April, as proposed by Tory MP John Baron
Option D: Norway plus model (remain in single market, customs arrangement, EFTA), as proposed by Tory MP Nick Boles
Option H: Norway model, without a customs union (EEA + EFTA), as proposed by Tory MP George Eustice
Option J: Leave the EU with a UK-wide customs union, as proposed by Tory MP Ken Clarke
Option K: Permanent customs union, including alignment with single market on future EU rights and regulations, as proposed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Option L: Revoke Article 50 if no-deal Brexit is not explicitly approved by MPs a day before we are due to leave, as proposed by the SNP
Option M: Any withdrawal agreement must be put to the public in a ‘confirmatory’ second referendum, as proposed by Labour’s Dame Margaret Beckett
Option O: If no withdrawal agreement agreed, seek “standstill” agreement with the EU while negotiating trade deal, as proposed by Tory MP Marcus Fysh
Earlier the European Council President Donald Tusk said that the European Parliament should stand with the millions of people in the U.K. fighting against Brexit, and grant Britain a long delay if it requests time to rethink its departure.
“Before the European Council, I said that we should be open to a long extension if the U.K. wishes to rethink its Brexit strategy, which would of course mean the U.K.’s participation in the European Parliament elections,” Tusk said.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking after Tusk, said a discussion among leaders about China at last week’s summit was easier than their deliberations on Brexit.
“If I were to compare Great Britain to a sphinx, the sphinx would be an open book by comparison and let’s see how that book speaks over the next week or so,” Juncker said.
His remarks reflect the expectation among EU leaders that the U.K. is unlikely to meet the deadline for approving the deal this week. But officials have been clear that if the U.K. parliament votes for the delay before the April 12 deadline, they would be willing to allow a technical delay until May 22 or even until June 30, to ease Britain’s path out of the bloc.
On Monday, Conservative former minister Sir Oliver Letwin spearheaded amendments that gave the commons substantial control over the Brexit process, pulling the rug from underneath the government’s feet. MPs gave themselves the right to determine the next options, including accepting May’s deal; opting for a no-deal departure; or go for a second referendum.
The rebellion was sparked, to some degree, by Brexiteers who were left unimpressed by the options offered by the EU the week before. A Leaders Summit proposed to shelve the May 29th date and laid two paths before Britain: either to back the current deal and extend the withdrawal date to 22 May, or to reject it and propose a final way forward by 12 April. Europe’s offer was widely interpreted as a sign of diminishing patience with the UK’s vacillation, but a core of Leave-backing legislators would have none of it and wrote to Theresa May warning her that delaying the exit day could be unlawful.
An eventful weekend
Conservative MP George Freeman captured the mood succinctly when he said he had never known the UK to be “so divided, so angry and in such a dangerous state.”
Meanwhile, a march called by pressure group People’s Vote attracted hundreds of thousands of people in London on Saturday demanding a second referendum. According to reports in some media outlets, a million people attended the ‘Put It To The People’ protest converging on Parliament Square, among them Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as well as other prominent politicians across the divide. Liberal Democrats Leader Vince Cable declared to the crowds that Britain is “now a Remain country” as nine in ten young people who could not vote in the 2016 referendum are decidedly against leaving.
The morning after, the country woke up to frontpages announcing that ministers Michael Gove and David Lidington were mounting a coup to overthrow Theresa May and save Brexit. Both dismissed the reports and Lidington, the de-facto Deputy Prime Minister, bluntly told door-stepping journalists: “one thing that working closely with the prime minister does is cure you completely of any lingering shred of ambition to want to do that task.”
And yet, Theresa May has shown a formidable reluctance to give in to the pressures that came with her election and resign, a frequent invitation by Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn. History books will likely be kinder than daily papers to the Prime Minister, who has put herself into an impossible situation of reconciling a divided country while moving it forward. Theresa May inherited not just the complex task of delivering Brexit without weakening the country’s bargaining weight, but also to hold together a fractious Conservative Party.
The agreement inciting disagreement
The Withdrawal Agreement that May’s government negotiated covers consequential issues such as citizen’s rights, the fishing sector, and laws and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Another controversial chapter in the 599-page document relates to the so-called ‘divorce bill’, which some estimate could reach over €45 billion to be paid by the UK. Most people, though, will be forgiven to believe that central theme of the agreement is the Irish Border.
The ‘backstop’ has, indeed, become the major bone of contention pitting party members against one another. The draft agreement proposes to seek a long-term solution that avoids creating a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a fundamental element of the Good Friday Agreement that ended years of violence in the region. Failing to find a reasonable solution by 2020, the backstop option would automatically come into effect establishing a single customs territory between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
Critics argue that such a scenario would keep Britain within the Customs Union and prevent the UK from forging independent trade deals with other countries. A backstop would require the government to observe “level playing field conditions” in sectors related to agriculture, fisheries, food standards and the environment. The Democratic Unionist Party, which forms part of May’s coalition government, is set against the backstop option and it has repeatedly asserted its unchanging position.
Wary of the discontent among the vociferous Brexiteers on the government benches, Theresa May took a last-minute decision to postpone a vote in Parliament on her deal, originally scheduled for December. Many predicted that the vote would be a humiliation to the Prime Minister and would throw the government into a new crisis. Instead, May rescheduled the vote to the new year and went on a cross-country tour to try to build grassroot support for her deal.
We will never know how the Withdrawal Agreement would have fared in the original date, but the vote on 15 January saw the largest defeat for a sitting government in Britain’s history. The Brexit deal was defeated by a 230 margin, spurring the Opposition to table an urgent motion of no confidence in the government. Theresa May survived that vote.
The government’s next move was to hold a second vote in the commons in March, while Theresa May sought assurances from the EU. Brussels were not as accommodating as the UK Prime Minister must have hoped with the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier declaring that there would be no further negotiations on the accord.
The second vote was less catastrophic, but equally disastrous for May, as the agreement was rejected by 149 votes. This time, House Speaker John Bercow prohibited the Prime Minister from presenting the same agreement for voting again, demanding substantial changes to be made to a future proposal. MPs did get another vote within a few days, though, this time absolutely rejecting a no-deal Brexit, which led to the turbulent week we have had.
According to plan, the past five months should have been the final leg of the Brexit journey, with the UK formally ending its membership of the EU as from 23:00 on Friday. But wrangling between opposite camps and indecisive leadership has derailed the process and we are today exactly in the same place we were at the start of it: the unknown.
This article provides a roundup of the salient developments since Theresa May secured a deal with the European Leaders till what was meant to be Brexit day, up till Wednesday 27th March at 1400h. It’s compiled through an analysis of the news provided for the Business Weekly by Corporate Dispatch and Diplomatique.Expert.