foreign interests

On Brexit, Theresa May Is Out of Ideas and Running Out of Time

Can I interest you in … the deal you already rejected? Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Less than a week after her proposed Brexit deal was rejected in Parliament by 230 votes, the largest margin of defeat in modern British history, U.K. prime minister Theresa May returned to the House of Commons on Monday to present her “Plan B,” which multiple MPs and nearly all media outlets were quick to note was barely indistinguishable from Plan A. While May offered MPs a few new promises, what she didn’t offer was any reason for the rejectionists to change their minds.

The crux of the impasse remains the Irish border problem: i.e., how to withdraw the U.K. from the E.U. without creating a hard border between the Republic of Ireland, an E.U. member state, and the U.K. country of Northern Ireland. May’s plan would see no real changes in Ireland during the transition period and envisions the parties agreeing a permanent solution for the island as part of the final trade deal that ends that transition period. If they fail to do so by the 2021 deadline, the deal contains a backstop arrangement that would maintain a mostly customs-free border by having Northern Ireland continue to abide by certain E.U. regulations.

This arrangement is unacceptable to May’s Northern Irish coalition partners, who see it as singling out and separating their country from the rest of the U.K., while hard Brexiteers fear that it would effectively prevent the U.K. from fully exiting the E.U. customs union. These MPs object to the fact that Britain can’t end the backstop unilaterally; they are demanding assurances that it does not become permanent and to minimize the chances that it comes into effect at all. Members of the opposition Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, meanwhile, are pushing for either a second referendum or a deal that maintains a closer relationship with the bloc than that envisioned by May, similar to what Norway or Canada has, though it’s not clear whether the E.U. would agree to this.

Unfortunately, the Irish border dilemma is a Catch-22 for the British government, as the only way to avoid the backstop or end it once it has begun is to reach a permanent solution, but the backstop exists precisely because London and Brussels were unable to find such a solution after nearly two years of negotiations; there’s no particular reason to believe another 21 months of talks will result in the parties cracking this nigh-on-insoluble problem.

The Irish backstop sank the first two versions of May’s deal and it is quite clear by now that there is no majority in Parliament for that plan as long as there is any chance of the backstop inadvertently becoming a temporary-to-permanent situation. Brussels has held firm that this insurance policy is non-negotiable: The U.K. can’t have a deal without it. Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz suggested that they limit the backstop to five years, but his Irish counterpart Simon Coveney quickly shot that idea down on Monday, saying the backstop wouldn’t really be a backstop if it were time limited. Germany’s foreign minister also rejected the idea of a five-year limit.

The best the E.U. can do is express a commitment to ensuring it doesn’t happen, but there’s no way they’re signing a deal that doesn’t include a fail-safe for Ireland. This isn’t just about protecting commerce, either: Many fear that a closed border could destabilize Northern Ireland and rekindle the sectarian tensions that led to three decades of civil conflict there. A car bombing on Saturday outside a courthouse in Londonderry, followed by two vehicle hijackings on Monday, stoked these fears, though the government insists they had nothing to do with Brexit. The government was also forced to dismiss rumors that May was considering amending the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which helped bring peace to Northern Ireland, as a way out of the impasse; such a plan would be a total nonstarter in Ireland.

May’s offerings on Monday did not include any ideas for renegotiating the backstop, saying merely that she would consult with MPs on “how we might meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland in a way that can command the greatest possible support in the House,” then report back to Brussels on the results of those consultations. What she expects to get out of more talks with irate lawmakers who have already rejected all of her feasible ideas is anyone’s guess.

All she had to show for the past week was a pledge that legislators, business groups, and unions would have a say in the further negotiations that would follow Britain leaving the E.U., some additional assurances that Brexit would not erode protections for workers or the environment, and a decision to waive the controversial £65 fee for Europeans living in the U.K. to apply for settled status.

Indeed, much of what May outlined on Monday was what she wasn’t willing to do. She doubled down on her rejection of a second referendum, which she argued would harm “social cohesion” and undermine Britons’ faith in democracy, and for which there is likely no majority in Parliament anyway. She also opposes pushing back the Brexit date from March 29, which she said would be “simply deferring the point of decision,” even though the E.U. has expressed willingness to give her more time. Furthermore, May said she would not rule out a no-deal Brexit as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is demanding; the only way to prevent the U.K. from crashing out of the E.U. without violating the will of the voters, she said, was to reach an acceptable version of her deal and pass it.

Amid this crisis, the House of Commons has taken steps to wrest control of the Brexit decision away from the government, giving itself a historically unusual degree of freedom to propose amendments to May’s deal and vote on motions from backbench MPs. Labour MP Yvette Cooper and former Conservative minister Nick Boles are pushing a bill that would force a vote on extending the deadline if May fails to produce a passable deal by February 26. Extending the deadline would require the unanimous consent of the other E.U. member states, who are open to the possibility but unlikely to agree if that just means delaying an inevitable no-deal Brexit for another couple of months.

Meanwhile, Labour leadership is proposing votes to compare support in Parliament for May’s deal, a renegotiation toward a Norway or Canada–like relationship with the E.U., a second referendum, and no deal. On the other side, Tory backbencher Andrew Murrison is expected to table an amendment that would put a time limit on the backstop, which might help May convince her European counterparts that this is necessary to get the deal passed.

The flurry of amendments illustrate the degree to which May has lost control of this train, as well as the more fundamental political problem here, which is that most MPs want to avoid no deal, but nobody can find a deal that a majority will vote for. Parliament is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on May’s Plan B motion and on the proposed amendments, paving the way for another binding vote on a final deal.

As things stand now, however, it’s hard to see how Britain gets to “yes” on anything at all, especially when the prime minister has no new ideas. Her plan, to the extent that she has one, is apparently to keep playing chicken and running out the clock until either Parliament or the E.U. gets spooked enough to adjust their red lines. It’s a risky strategy, but she has gotten nowhere trying to reason with her legislature; really, how many times can you explain that the deal you spent two years negotiating is the only one available?

The sensible, democratic solution would seem to lay in delaying Brexit and holding a second referendum that avoids the up-or-down mistake the government made in 2016: Let the public vote instead on the two most plausible options for a soft Brexit (May’s deal or the “Norway-plus” model), a no-deal Brexit, or no Brexit at all. The problem with this, however, is that none of these options would win a clear majority, and implementing a plan supported by 33 percent of the electorate won’t be any easier than implementing one supported by 52 percent.

May’s fears of social discord are therefore valid, but also redundant, as that damage is already done. Like the 2016 election here in the U.S., Brexit uncovered a deep, latent division within British society between those who want to be part of a global community and those who want to be part of a nation-state. That division — related to but separate from right versus left or urban versus rural — has proven itself a potent vehicle for social tension, political opportunism, and the malicious manipulation of democratic systems by those who would seek to undermine them. No matter what happens between now and March 29, this matter will not be settled for a very long time.

On Brexit, May Is Out of Ideas and Nearly Out of Time