Casual observers will be forgiven for assuming British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal is dead. It was, after all, historically defeated in the House of Commons just a couple of weeks ago. May was supposed to consult with her ministers and with party leaders and come back with a new plan. She deftly sidestepped the Commons, however, by revealing Jan. 21 that her plan B was to try plan A again. So her deal lives on, and it still includes the controversial Irish backstop, a provision that would keep the U.K. closely aligned with the EU in the likely event that their future relationship doesn’t obviate the need for a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But May’s deal is no closer to passage, and with only 60 days to go until March 29, when the U.K. is to leave the European Union, it would probably be impossible to pass the relevant legislation without delaying the departure date by at least a couple of months. What started two and a half years ago as a binary choice between leave or remain is increasingly looking binary again. This time, it’s between no deal and no Brexit.
A no-deal Brexit means the U.K. would leave the EU, but in doing so, it would terminate 46 years’ worth of agreements with the bloc overnight. A large majority of lawmakers and the public oppose this option because of the economic and potentially social disruption it would cause. The economic cost is difficult to gauge, not only because such calculations are extremely complex but also because much depends on how much pressure the EU decides to apply. Worst-case scenario, there could be multiday traffic jams at ports and shortages of some medicines, foods and fuel. Socially, there is a low risk of mass protests or even riots and looting – scenarios the government has prepared for by calling up a few hundred army reservists and putting thousands of others on standby. But the direr risk is that violence could erupt again on the Irish border. Irish militants have carried out a few attacks in Londonderry, including a small car bombing, in the past two weeks alone. To those who claim a second referendum or cancellation of Brexit is dangerous because it could ignite mass protests and violence, this is a reminder that going through with Brexit in a disorderly manner could do the very same.
The other option is that the U.K. remains in the EU. One way for it to stay would be to unilaterally revoke Article 50, the provision in the Lisbon Treaty that details how a member state can leave the EU. But such a blatant disregard for the public would upset at least half of the country, so if the government were to cancel Brexit, it would prefer to do so after a second referendum in which “remain” prevails. The problem is there’s not enough time to hold a referendum. London’s only other option is to ask Brussels to extend Article 50. The U.K. has reportedly been considering as much and putting out feelers to Brussels for weeks. All 27 member states would have to agree to an extension, which would likely prolong the process by two to nine months. The EU has publicly attached all sorts of conditions to an extension – that it be meant to give the U.K. time to ratify the existing agreement, to resume negotiations without some of the U.K.’s original red lines, or to hold a new election or referendum – but ultimately the member states are unlikely to force a crisis right now.
It appears as though May will opt to ask for an extension and kick the can down the road. Her existing deal would probably require serious changes to get through the Commons, and it would almost certainly have to happen with Labour support – May’s functional majority is too small and opposition within her party is too large for any other realistic deal to pass. But it’s unclear why Labour would accept any responsibility for the current and future states of affairs and help May pass her deal, especially when the possibility of canceling Brexit – the preferred outcome of most Labour voters – still exists.
Labour leadership has urged May to eliminate no deal as an option in exchange for cross-party talks. May and her backers have insisted that this is logically impossible, even as lawmakers are crafting legislation that would effectively do just that (by requiring the government to seek an Article 50 extension to prevent leaving without a deal, a process that could be repeated indefinitely; and if that fails, there’s nothing but politics stopping the government from committing to temporarily revoking Article 50). The problem for May is that the moment she takes no deal off the table, Labour has even less reason to cooperate; the default would then be to remain in the EU, if only through repeated delays. There are no good options for the prime minister, which is why a Brexit delay is the most likely outcome and which may explain why her government doesn’t appear to be putting up much of a fight against lawmakers who are trying to seize more control over the negotiations.
Delaying Brexit will not help settle the terms of the U.K.’s relationship with the EU, but neither will anything else. At the heart of the issue is the balance between national sovereignty and ties, especially economic, with the dominant bloc in the region. The only conceivable way out of the current impasse might be to go back to the British people, whether through another referendum or a general election – and there is a good chance that neither would produce a definitive answer. Certainly neither would be popular. Brexit took the lid off a very serious and complex division within the United Kingdom about the U.K.’s relationship to the Continent, and deal or no deal, it won’t be settled by the end of March.