It has to be acknowledged candidly that in a huge jolt to the British Prime Minister Theresa May, the British lawmakers have outrightly rejected for a third time on March 29 her Brexit deal to avoid a chaotic no-deal divorce from the European Union (EU) thus sounding its probable death knell and leaving Britain’s withdrawal from the EU in turmoil on the very day it was supposed to leave the bloc. Thus we see that attempts by both Parliament and British Prime Minister Theresa May to clear the Brexit deadlock have floundered and failed miserably! There can be no denying or disputing it!
Needless to say, MPs failed to back any of eight alternative options in a vote held on night of March 27, while Ms Theresa May’s pledge to make way for a successor in time for the next phase of Brexit negotiation did not cut ice and failed to persuade enough MPs to back her deal. It goes without saying that the decision to reject a stripped-down version of May’s divorce deal has left it totally unclear how, when or even whether Britain will leave the EU in the coming days ahead! No doubt, this certainly plunges the three-year Brexit simmering crisis to a more deeper level of uncertainty.
As it turned out, after a special sitting of Parliament, lawmakers voted 344-286 against May’s 585-page EU Withdrawal Agreement, agreed after two years of tortuous negotiations with the bloc. This is certainly without an iota of doubt a major setback for British PM Theresa May! May had told Parliament in no uncertain terms that the vote was the last opportunity to ensure that Brexit would take place and cautioned that if the deal failed, then any further delay to Brexit would probably be a long one beyond April 12.
To put things in perspective, hours after May promised her Conservative members of Parliament on March 27 that she’d step down if they back her Brexit deal, she still looked short of having the numbers needed to win. It’s already been overwhelmingly defeated twice but still May was determined to try again. It must be pointed out here that May told the House of Commons that, “There are those who will say: ‘The House has rejected every option so far, you’ll probably lose so why bother?’ I bother because this is the last opportunity to guarantee Brexit. If we do not vote for this motion today, people will ask: Why did you not vote for Brexit?”
What’s more, May told Parliament after the defeat that, “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House. This House has rejected ‘no deal’. It has rejected ‘no Brexit’. On Wednesday, it rejected all the variations of the deal on the table. This government will continue to press the case for the orderly Brexit that the result of the referendum demands.” The British pound, which has been buoyed in recent weeks by hopes that the likelihood of an abrupt ‘no-deal’ Brexit is receding, fell half a percent after May lost, to as low as $1.2977. This is certainly not surprising and was much anticipated!
Truth be told, within minutes of the vote, European Council President and Summit Chair Donald Tusk tweeted that EU leaders will meet on April 10 to discuss Britain’s departure from the bloc. The EU executive, the European Commission said that a “no-deal” exit on April 12 was now “a likely scenario”. It was a third straight failure for May, who had offered to resign on March 27 if the deal passed, in a bid to win over eurosceptic rebels in her Conservative Party who support a more decisive break with the EU than the divorce her deal offers.
Simply put, it leaves May’s Brexit strategy in tatters. Her strongly pro-Brexit Trade Minister Liam Fox had said on March 29 that it represented the last chance to “vote for Brexit as we understood it”. It must be mentioned here that the deal had twice been rejected by huge margins and although May was able to win over many Conservative rebels, a hard core of eurosceptics and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which props up her minority government refused to back it.
It may be recalled that in a referendum on June 23, 2016, those favouring Brexit (Leave) won by 52% to 48% (Remain). The “transition period” was scheduled to start from March 29, 2019 and to end on December 31, 2020 which could be extended by up to two years if both the UK and the EU agree. This was to allow both time to agree to their future relationship. But all this was subjected to Parliament accepting PM Theresa May’s deal which has already been rejected twice and now rejected again for third time putting the proposed plan in a soup! During this transition period, the UK was expected to follow all EU rules, but would have no say in the framing of new ones.
It must be brought out here that in November 2018, the UK and the EU agreed to the terms of the exit, known as the withdrawal agreement. However, the agreement has failed to clear in British Parliament with MPs voting twice against it in 2019. On January 15, they voted 432-202 to reject the deal. Withdrawal agreement is a legally binding document that has to be passed by both the British and the European Parliaments. It covers the following:
a) Irish backstop: Right now, there is free movement of goods and people between the Republic of Ireland which will remain part of the EU and Northern Ireland which is part of the UK. The Irish backstop is a measure in the withdrawal agreement which will primarily make sure that this continues after Brexit and comes into effect only if the deal deciding the future relationship between the UK and EU is not agreed by the end of the transition period. Until then, the backstop keeps the UK effectively inside the EU Customs Union (a trade agreement that fortbids trade negotiations with EU member states separately from the EU). It also means that Northern Ireland conforms to some rules of the single market (goods, services, people and money move between EU member states and some other states).
b) Citizens rights: The draft deal preserves the rights of the more than three million EU citizens living in Britain and the one million British citizens living in the EU.
c) Brexit bill: It calls for a fair settlement for UK taxpayers that the British government estimates to be up to 39 billion pounds.
It must also be brought out here that the British PM Theresa May then renegotiated certain terms with the EU but on March 12, MPs voted against the withdrawal agreement again, this time by 391 votes to 242. The following day, the MPs then rejected the idea of leaving the EU without a deal – an option called the “No Deal”. Under this, it would be legal for the UK to unilaterally leave the European Union, cancel Brexit and cuts all ties immediately with no need for agreement at all in place with the other 27 EU countries.
Furthermore, the UK would simply follow the World Trade Organization rules to trade with the EU and other countries while trying to negotiate free-trade deals. Under WTO rules, each country sets tariffs on goods entering. If the UK chooses to put no tariff on goods from the EU, it must also have no tariffs on goods from every WTO member. If no other course of action can be agreed, the default option then would be that UK crashes out of the EU on April 12. Then we saw how on March 14, they voted 413-202 in favour of Prime Minister May asking the EU for a delay to carry out Brexit.
It is a no brainer that now Parliament will again try to take control of UK’s departure from the EU with some lawmakers hoping to force PM Theresa May to drop her Brexit strategy and pursue close economic ties with the bloc. Underlining how uncertainty is hurting business, the UK head of German industrial giant Siemens, Juergen Maier said that, “Britain was wrecking its reputation for stability and he urged lawmakers to back a customs union with the EU.”
More importantly, the head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said in an interview on Italian state TV RAI on March 31, 2019 that, “The European Union has had a lot of patience with Britain over Brexit but patience runs out.” Juncker whose words were translated into Italian said he would like Great Britain to be able to reach an agreement in the coming hours and days that could be followed. He said that, “So far we know what the British Parliament says no to but we don’t know what it might say yes to.”
Be it noted, Parliament will vote on different Brexit options on April 8, possibly showing a majority backing for a customs union and then May could try one last roll of the dice by bringing her deal back to a vote in Parliament as soon as Wednesday. May’s government and her party, which has grappled with schism over Europe for 30 years, was in open conflict between those pushing for a customs union with the EU and eurosceptics who are demanding a cleaner break with the bloc. May’s enforcer in Parliament – known as the chief whip – said that the government should have been clearer that May’s loss of her majority in Parliament in a snap 2017 election would inevitably lead it to accept a softer Brexit. Julian Smith said that, “The government as a whole probably should have just been clearer on the consequences of that. The parliamentary arithmetic would mean that this would be inevitably a kind of softer type of Brexit.” Smith also lamented that ministers had tried to undermine the Prime Minister.
It would be imperative to mention here that Article 50 is part of the Lisbon Treaty among EU member states. It covers how a member country can leave. This Article was triggered at the end of March 2017, hence Brexit Day in March 2019. It must also be mentioned here that to stop the Article 50 process, the UK may act on its own and to extend it all the EU countries must agree.
Logically speaking, if the deadlock between Parliament and government continues, then in such a situation the MPs or the executive could trigger a general election. This would well mean the end of British PM Theresa May’s reign as PM! Let’s wait and watch how things play out in UK in the days ahead! But one thing is clear: The sailing would be very rough for British PM Theresa May which even her best admirers would readily agree! Her Brexit deal being rejected for the third time is already a big setback for her!
Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,
s/o Col BPS Sirohi,
A 82, Defence Enclave,
Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,
Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.