Theresa May Still Searching For A Brexit Deal
With just over two months to go until the March 29th deadline, British Prime Minister Theresa May is no closer to a Brexit deal.
Theresa May appears to be headed for another Brexit disaster in the House of Commons:
The emergency sirens are whirring for a no-deal Brexit — only this time it’s not a drill.
In European capitals there is now mounting alarm that Theresa May has set Britain on course for a diplomatic disaster, by fundamentally misjudging how far EU leaders are prepared to bend at the last minute in their summit just a week before Britain’s EU departure date.
A month after suffering the biggest parliamentary defeat in British history, May is doubling down on her strategy of winning her Brexiteer backbenchers and the Democratic Unionist Party over to supporting her deal by securing legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement she finalized with the EU in November. Her ministers have made diplomatic forays to Brussels, Strasbourg, Paris and Dublin in recent days and May herself has spoken to the leaders of Germany, Portugal, Austria and Sweden. Next week, she will be back in Brussels for talks with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Despite yet another defeat in the House of Commons Thursday — albeit on a symbolic motion — the strategy remains the same. “The government’s position remains to resolve the issues of the backstop and then come back to parliament with a fresh meaningful vote,” Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom told the BBC Friday.
But there is skepticism in Brussels about the substance of the current diplomatic flurry. ”There are no real talks going on. It’s more May speaking to capitals, testing the water and trying to give the impression to her people at home that there are actual talks to gain some time,” said one EU diplomat. “There’s nothing on the table yet, we still hope to see it at least in March.”
“No news is not always good news,” tweeted Council President Donald Tusk, “EU27 still waiting for concrete, realistic proposals from London.”
Senior EU27 officials say May has failed to narrow her Brexit demands to a “single constructive proposal” to find a way through the impasse over the Irish border.
One minister from a major EU power was left so shocked after a meeting with a U.K. counterpart last week they concluded Britain is now hell-bent on pushing the crisis to the wire in the hope of a last-minute concession from EU leaders, which will not materialize.
The view is shared by some senior members of the U.K. Cabinet, who fear the PM is heading for a repeat of the diplomatic disaster at the EU leaders’ summit in Salzburg last September. At that meeting she miscalculated the EU’s willingness to engage with her proposed Chequers “compromise” offer, leaving her politically humiliated amid mocking headlines and recriminations in Westminster.
Among U.K. Cabinet ministers, diplomats and senior EU officials, speculation is growing about a short technical extension of the Article 50 exit period, which could be agreed in principle in early March to create the space for a showdown at the summit in Brussels later that month.
This would give the U.K. and EU time to implement whatever was agreed at the summit — or put in place the last-minute preparations for no-deal.
In this scenario, the March meeting of EU leaders would agree the final Brexit package while also officially signing off a short exit delay to allow the U.K. parliament to push through the agreement before British local elections on May 2.
However, senior EU27 officials and British Cabinet ministers are privately voicing fears that the U.K. prime minister is still misreading the extent of what is possible at the final summit.
This fear is not confined to European capitals. One senior Conservative MP said the PM is walking into the same trap she set for herself at the Salzburg meeting, and that colleagues have learned the wrong lesson from the euro crisis and the EU’s treatment of Greece.
All of this comes just over a month after the House of Commons, in an historic rebuke of a sitting government, rejected the May government’s Brexit proposal, a development which has put the entire Brexit process in doubt and raising the possibility of a so-called “hard Brexit” in which they would be no withdrawal deal at all. Since then May has apparently struggled to come up with changes to the plan that she and her negotiator had reached with the European Union’s negotiators that will pass the House of Commons and, so far at least, it does not appear that there’s been any progress at all. Instead, it appears that May has been dividing her time between trying to get additional concessions from the E.U. and trying to find a way to close the massive gap in votes that she faced in the House of Commons back in January. In neither case does she seem to be making any significant progress.
All of this leads to the question would be where this all goes given the fact that we are now just over a month away from the supposed Brexit deadline of March 29th.
One option would be a so-called “hard” Brexit, which means Brexit without any agreements regarding future trade between the United Kingdom and the European Union, no provisions regarding trade or the transfer of goods, services, and funds, no provisions regarding the status of U.K. nationals living abroad in E.U. member states, and no provisions regarding the status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. This last point could easily and quickly become a point of contention that would threaten to unravel the peace and calm that has existed there for the past twenty years. While some hardline Brexiteers seem to be cheering a “hard Brexit” on, it seems clear that it would be potentially disastrous for Great Britain since it would potentially mean a loss of access to goods from the continent, the closure of markets to British goods, and difficulties for British ships seeking to deliver goods to European ports.
Alternatively, the British Government and the European Union could agree to extend the Brexit deadline and either return to square one and try to come up with broader changes to the existing deal that would make it possible to get approval in the House of Commons. Given the comments from the E.U, negotiators after the vote in January, though, that seemed exceedingly unlikely. However, since then May and her negotiators have been talking to their counterparts Despite that, though, this may end up being the way things proceed since neither party seems to relish the idea of a “hard” Brexit just two and a half months from now and there appears to be very little time between now and then to negotiate something that could get approval in the House of Commons in time for the existing March 29th deadline.
The final option would be that the May government could try to find a way to push the Article 50 deadline off indefinitely and resubmit the “leave” or “remain” options to a nationwide referendum like the one we saw in 2016. There’s presently no provision in British law for that, of course, but that could change with a simple majority vote in Parliament. The hope at that point, I presume, would be that this time the voters would come to the rescue of the government and change their minds on breaking off ties with the European Union. At this point, though, that’s just a theoretical idea.
Where will things go next? Who knows, but there’s not much time left.