The timetable for Brexit is now being measured in weeks, not months, and up until this one, little progress had been made on serious, structural changes to Britain’s plan to leave the European Union since January, when Parliament voted no on the deal drafted by Prime Minister Theresa May. But, now it’s cram time. Three votes in the coming days could bring some major updates on the departure, which is slated for March 29:
In Strasbourg, France, Prime Minister Theresa May and European Union chief Jean-Claude Juncker tipped off the week with the announcement that the E.U. and the British government have agreed on revisions to the deal that the House of Commons rejected in January. The British government states it has secured “legally binding changes” from the E.U. to address concerns about the border between Ireland and British-controlled Northern Ireland — a main factor in the rejection of the deal earlier this year.
The language on Northern Ireland dealt with what is known as the backstop: a safeguard that would allow the United Kingdom to remain in a customs union with the E.U. until a trading agreement was established at a later date. Parliament members who voted no in January were worried that the backstop could keep Britain in a customs union with the continent indefinitely, voiding the concept of a Britain with trade independence.
On Tuesday, May promised that the new policy would “guarantee that the E.U. cannot act with the intent of applying the backstop indefinitely.” E.U. chief Juncker delivered the news with more urgency: “Let’s be crystal clear about the choice. It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all.”
There may still be a no-deal Brexit if Parliament delivers a no on Tuesday’s vote on the withdrawal plan. Even with updated language on the Northern Ireland border, the vote could fail, as most of the 585-page withdrawal agreement from January remains intact.
If Parliament approves the measure, the fears of Britain crashing out of the E.U. are over. The U.K. would enter a transition period that would last through the end of 2020. In that year-and-nine-months trade purgatory, the country would remain inside the E.U. customs union as it drafts a new deal with the continent. During the transition, businesses in the U.K. would have more time to prepare for the changeover, and E.U. citizens could continue to live and work in the U.K. without visas.
Wednesday and Thursday
With just a little over two weeks until the March 29 deadline, May has stated that she will hold a vote Wednesday to determine whether or not the U.K. should pursue a no-deal Brexit if Parliament votes down the measure on Tuesday. As NPR states, an official no-deal vote is unlikely:
There are a few hard-core “Brexiteer” members of Parliament in May’s Conservative Party who support leaving the EU with no deal, and a recent poll showed a majority of the party’s rank-and-file members agree. But the great majority of lawmakers, including most Conservative members of Parliament, will vote against a no-deal Brexit because they believe it would be economically damaging and disruptive.
If Parliament rejects the no-deal option, MPs would then face a vote on Wednesday or Thursday if they wanted to pursue a “short limited extension to Article 50,” at which point, May would contact the E.U. to see if Brussels would okay a delay to the process, which began with the initial vote to leave in June 2016.