House Call
All eyes on British parliament's upcoming vote to choose between a no-deal exit and a consensual Brexit
By Yang Fang  ·  2019-01-04  ·   Source: NO. 2 JANUARY 10, 2019
A demonstration against the draft Brexit deal outside parliament in London, Britain, on December 10, 2018 (XINHUA)

As the March 29 deadline for the UK's divorce from the European Union (EU) draws near, uncertainties remain despite EU leaders approving of Theresa May's Brexit agreement in November amid tumultuous opposition in Britain. The question now is whether the UK can attain an orderly withdrawal or whether there will be a no-deal Brexit, which will mean further crisis engulfing the island nation.

The British parliament was to vote on the Brexit deal in December 2018. It seemed certain to fail and May managed to delay it till January and in the process, survived a no-confidence vote in her own party. It led to her announcing that she would step down before the anticipated elections in 2022, a promise that might have helped her win over some lawmakers.

So though the last two months of 2018 witnessed many upheavals in the Brexit process, there were no crucial changes actually. The British parties could not still reach a consensus on Brexit issues and May still remained in her chair. Debates on the Brexit process are likely to continue in 2019, but with the upcoming vote on May's deal, the UK's future may become clearer.

May's predicament

On November 14, 2018, London and Brussels finally reached an agreement after months of negotiations. The deal laid down the financial settlement for the UK after its withdrawal as well as the principles guaranteeing citizens' rights and terms for the Brexit transition period. The two sides also agreed on a framework for future negotiations on trade and security. Now the draft has to be approved by a parliamentary vote on both sides. Only after it is ratified will a real legal document be in place to guide Britain's orderly withdrawal from the EU.

The customs union, trade negotiations and the Irish border issue are among the most daunting problems. The EU wants to defend the integrity of the single market and ensure its bedrock—freedom of movement for goods, persons, services and capital. Britain will not be allowed to selectively enjoy the benefits of the single market after leaving the EU.

The EU also attaches particular importance to Ireland's position as a member state. Ireland shares a border with Northern Ireland of the UK. According to the Good Friday Agreement signed between the UK and Ireland in 1998, there would be no hard borders between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The UK has agreed not to erect a border with Ireland, its only EU neighbor by land, after Brexit. So far, limited consensus has been reached on the customs union and the Irish border.

The two sides have agreed that while independent trade deals are negotiated with other countries, the UK, including Northern Ireland, will stay within the customs union during the Brexit transition period, which could last as long as 2022. After that, a three-party panel may be formed to decide the issue if a new trade relationship between the UK and EU can't be reached.

This solution, however, is strongly opposed by British politicians in favor of a hard Brexit. The British attorney general's legal advice on Brexit indicates that the UK could be locked indefinitely in the EU's orbit. "In the absence of a right of termination, there is a legal risk that the United Kingdom might become subject to protracted and repeating rounds of negotiations," it says.

So when May signed the deal with the EU, it sparked a backlash. Then Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab resigned, with a number of government officials quitting in his wake. The Conservative Party saw upheavals with over 100 MPs rebelling, causing the house vote scheduled on December 15 to be deferred. To win lawmakers' support, May said she would ask the EU to clarify its position on Northern Ireland.

She then made a whirlwind tour of the Hague, Berlin and Brussels to try to persuade European leaders to make more concessions on the Brexit deal. But the trip was ineffective, making the EU members resolved not to renegotiate. Some analysts felt the EU would rather take the risk of a no-deal Brexit than let a renegotiated deal tear apart its integrity.

So now the EU is stepping up preparations to deal with the possible risk of a no-deal Brexit. Countries such as Ireland, France, the Netherlands and Belgium have begun to ready personnel and facilities for potential additional border controls and customs clearance. They are also explaining the impact a no-deal Brexit would have on different enterprises, and are trying to reduce it by providing subsidies and searching for alternative markets.

While May was in talks with EU leaders, Conservative Party members in favor of a hard Brexit upped their campaign against her. Graham Brady, head of the Conservative Private Members' Committee representing Conservative backbenchers, called for a no-confidence vote on December 12, 2018. Though May hung on with the support of 200 MPs, which ensured she won't be challenged in a year, the fact that 117 MPs voted to kick her out left her position further weakened.

Britain's choice

Despite the chaos, an orderly withdrawal from the EU is the most likely outcome for the UK, which would be the basis for the survival of the May administration. An orderly exit will also have a relatively small impact on the economy of the UK and EU. The Guardian newspaper wrote that if the EU's attitude can be changed, May could gain more support in her own party.

For the UK, the adoption of the deal would mark the country surviving the darkest hour of Brexit and define the general direction of its withdrawal from the EU. However, there are still many uncertainties ahead and there is still a long way to go before an orderly Brexit can be achieved.

But a no-deal withdrawal is the last option for both. While both sides are bracing for a possible no-deal Brexit, the markets are under high pressure. So a no-deal exit can never be an active political choice for either. At the most, it can be a bargaining chip on the negotiating table.

In June 2016, when the UK held the Brexit referendum, although the majority favored leaving the EU, the difference between the two camps was less than 4 percent. Therefore every time the Brexit negotiations reach a deadlock, there are calls for a new referendum or even remaining in the EU.

A group of Scottish politicians have already challenged the Brexit decision. On December 11, 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled on their petition, saying the UK can unilaterally reverse Brexit. The decision, welcomed by the pro-EU campaign, has raised hopes of a second referendum. Alyn Smith, one of the Scottish leaders who initiated the proceedings, said the ruling sends a clear message to UK MPs that there is a way out of the mess.

But a second referendum or reversing Brexit would require the government to table a bill and parliament to endorse it. The May administration has repeatedly rejected either of the options. Environment Minister Michael Gove, who campaigned for Brexit, dismissed the ruling by voicing the government's insistence that it will not reverse its decision to leave. So for now, the coming vote holds the key to what's going to happen.

The author is an associate researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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