The British Parliament’s big swing at taking control of Brexit wasn’t a success, but neither was it a total failure. In nonbinding votes on Wednesday night, legislators rejected all eight options before them, including the existing withdrawal agreement, negotiated with the European Union by Prime Minister Theresa May, and a no-deal departure. Yet two alternatives – a “softer” form of Brexit than the current deal, entailing a closer future relationship with the EU, and a motion demanding that any deal secure public approval before implementation – came close to passing, and both received more votes than the divorce deal has in either of its two ill-fated votes. (The former, which calls for a permanent customs union with the EU on the terms of the existing withdrawal deal, fell 272-264. The latter, known as the “confirmatory public vote” option, was voted down 295-268. May’s deal was voted down 432-202 on Jan. 15, and 391-242 on March 12.) Parliament will narrow its options and hold a second round of votes on Monday.
Before the votes on Wednesday, May announced that she would step down if the withdrawal agreement is passed so that someone else can lead the negotiations on the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU. Since then, at least a couple dozen hardline Brexiteers, including prominent figures like former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, have reportedly said they would support the deal. That likely won’t be enough – the deal is still probably several dozen votes short of a majority. Still, the government will submit the withdrawal agreement for a third vote on Friday.
This is all exactly as insane as it sounds. Lawmakers have started to scramble as the deadline approaches (originally March 29, it is now April 12), but there has been no real progress since the divorce deal was agreed in November 2018 – which was more than two years after the Brexit referendum.
The division that has led to the current impasse is not only between Leavers and Remainers but also among Leavers themselves. The majority support that once existed for Brexit – not only in the public referendum but also in Parliament, which voted by a massive 498-114 margin to formally start the process of leaving the EU two years ago – has broken down into so many factions that now not even one of eight options can garner majority support. Separating from the EU is forcing British lawmakers to make some hard choices – choices that could literally lead to the dissolution of the United Kingdom. Save for canceling Brexit, which would come with its own severe consequences for British democracy, there is no scenario – even leaving without a deal – where the U.K. doesn’t eventually have to face these realities.
The Sticking Points
What the British government and Parliament have been struggling with ever since the referendum is how to detach the U.K. from the EU without detaching from Europe. In some areas, this was relatively simple. There was hard bargaining on things like citizens’ rights, foreign and security policy, and the U.K.’s “divorce bill” owed to the bloc, but ultimately these were bargaining chips. The seemingly insurmountable obstacles are trade and the Irish border, two closely related issues.
The key to unlocking a border agreement lies in the final trade relationship. The problem is that trade is the one area where the EU and Europe are synonymous; there is no way to sever links with one and not the other. The European Union is first and foremost a free trade area, and its greatest asset in foreign affairs is its ability to control the ease with which outsiders can access its market. Even without the U.K., the EU would still be the world’s second-largest economy, with a gross domestic product roughly the size of Japan, the U.K., India, Brazil, Canada and Turkey combined. In the first three quarters of 2018, nearly 46 percent of British exports of goods and services went to the EU, worth a total of 214.6 billion pounds ($280 billion), almost 1.5 times more than the U.K.’s next-largest export destination, the United States. The past couple of years have been nothing less than an exercise in myth busting when it comes to the balance of power in the EU-U.K. trade relationship.
Take, for example, the trade agreements that the U.K. enjoys with non-EU countries as an EU member. The British government has been working for years to replicate those agreements for post-Brexit Britain, but progress has been slow. The Financial Times reported in February that Japanese trade negotiators were confident they could secure bigger concessions from the U.K. than they did from the EU and thus refused to roll over the recently inaugurated EU-Japan trade deal. In an interview with Business Insider this week, Martin Donnelly, the permanent secretary of the U.K.’s Department for International Trade until 2017, became just the latest expert to warn that future British trade deals were likely to include less favorable terms than existing ones. The United States, which does not have a trade agreement with the EU, has set tough expectations for its own trade deal, including “comprehensive market access for U.S. agricultural goods.” This is typical for negotiations, but that’s the point: Trade talks are brutal, the EU can offer access to a vastly larger consumer market and thus invariably has more clout in negotiations, and the U.K. won’t get special treatment even from Washington.
Then there’s the Irish border. Right now, because both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland are in a customs union and single market, trade goods can move freely between them. But the EU contends that without those conditions, trucks will need to be stopped and inspected. This poses a threat to the Good Friday Agreement and the fragile peace that has existed between Ireland’s Unionists and Republicans for three decades. Simply put, that peace depends on the illusion of no border, and the fear is that anything that hints at separation will be a target for violence.
The answer that negotiators arrived at was the Irish backstop, which effectively would mean that Northern Ireland would remain in a European customs union and stay aligned with single market rules no matter what. The backstop would cease to apply should the U.K. and EU come up with “alternative arrangements,” namely some sort of technological solution that obviates the need for formal checks or physical infrastructure, but such a solution is as yet undeveloped and probably years away.
Though Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy has concluded that the backstop would be a boon for foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland, the ruling Democratic Unionist Party despises the idea. Being stuck applying EU tariffs and following EU regulations, just like the Irish Republic, while the rest of the U.K. floats away is seen as a stepping-stone toward Irish reunification. And without the DUP’s votes, the withdrawal agreement does not have the numbers to pass in Parliament unless it gets significant support from the opposition Labour Party – an unlikely prospect.
Were it not for the Irish question, resolution would be easier. But not by much. There is still a deceptively hard decision to be made over whether to prioritize business interests through close ties to Europe or greater autonomy through a U.K.-EU free trade agreement. Every advanced European economy has had to make this decision at some point, and all of them chose either full EU membership or participation in the single market (Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein), which means they obey rules set by EU member states on things like food standards and competition. Most Brexiteers resist the single market, preferring instead a comprehensive free trade agreement. And that’s where Northern Ireland invariably comes up again, because it’s the EU’s relative strength on trade that enables it to make the Irish backstop a permanent feature of any future arrangement – even a free trade deal.
If Parliament can’t break the deadlock, some members – 184 of roughly 638, according to Wednesday’s vote – favor canceling Brexit over leaving without a transition period. This could be done unilaterally by the U.K. at any time. Another 160 support departing without a deal. But that would only exacerbate the Irish border issue, creating the need for checks on goods moving across the border. (Ironically, a British government guidance document released earlier this month states that, in a no-deal scenario, it would not carry out checks on goods moving into Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic, though checks would be conducted on goods entering the rest of the U.K. This is not a far cry from the special treatment the Northern Irish DUP has been trying to prevent.)
Worse still, no deal is not in itself an endpoint; like the withdrawal agreement, it is merely a transient stage while working out the future relationship – just a much more chaotic transition. Once out of the EU’s customs union, the British government would be free to negotiate its own free trade agreements with non-EU countries. At some point, however, it would desire a trade deal with the bloc that accounts for almost half of all British trade. The realities of the balance of power, and of the Irish border, would not have changed in the intervening period. In fact, if prevailing economic impact assessments are accurate, the U.K. will be returning to the table after having been through much worse than the EU collectively.
This is the crux of the matter. Leaving the EU is easy. Trade negotiations are hard. And for a European power, even one like the United Kingdom, breaking up with Europe is impossible.