There have been any number of extraordinary moments over the past three years in the long-running Brexit saga. But the events of the past week, occurring as they did in the shadow of the looming prospect that, despite the desire of both the government and a majority of the House of Commons to avoid a no-deal exit, the UK will leave the EU next Friday without an approved withdrawal agreement, were extraordinary, even when compared with all the others that have occurred over the past three years.
On Mar. 20, after John Bercow, the Speaker of the House, ruled the House of Commons could not vote for a third time on the UK-EU withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the future relationship that were rejected by large margins on Jan. 15 and Mar. 12 because there had not been a substantial change in the motion, Prime Minister Theresa May requested that the European Council formally approve the documents she and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker agreed in Strasbourg on Mar. 11 so she could claim there had been a substantial change and bring the agreement forward for another vote. She also requested that, in the event the speaker approved a third vote and the House approved the agreement, the EU extend the exit date to June 30.
On Mar. 21, the European Council approved the documents and formalized its approval in a legally-binding Council decision. It agreed that if the withdrawal agreement were approved by the end of last week, the exit date would be extended to May 22, the day before the UK was scheduled to participate in the European Parliament elections. But it also agreed that if the agreement wasn’t approved by the end of last week, the exit date would be extended only to April 12, the date by which the UK must decide whether it will participate in the European Parliament elections. If the UK decided to participate in the elections, it would have the option of a “long extension.” But if it decided not to participate, it would leave on April 12.
Last week, after the prime minister concluded there was still not sufficient support to bring the withdrawal agreement to the House for a third vote, a cross-party amendment to an earlier motion was put forward and approved, despite the opposition of the government, that called for the House to debate and vote on “alternative ways forward” through a series of non-binding “indicative” votes. Last Wednesday, the speaker selected eight motions for inclusion on a ballot. Among the motions chosen were proposals to leave the EU without a deal on April 12, create a customs union with the EU, join the European Free Trade Association and the EFTA pillar of the European Economic Area, hold a confirmatory public vote, and revoke the Article 50 notification. None of the motions won a majority, although the proposal to create a customs union did lose by only eight votes.
As the “indicative votes” were being counted, the prime minister met with the Conservatives’ 1922 Committee — i.e., the party’s backbenchers — and indicated that, if the House approved the withdrawal agreement, she would step down as party leader and prime minister prior to the negotiations about the future relationship. After several leading Brexiters indicated they would, albeit reluctantly, vote for the withdrawal agreement if the speaker allowed a third vote, last Thursday the government put forward a motion that recognized the terms and conditions agreed by the European Council at its meeting on Mar. 21 and asked the House to approve the withdrawal agreement. The speaker concluded that, because the motion no longer included the political declaration and applied to the new dates and conditions stipulated by the European Council and there was a new legally-binding document, the agreement could be put to a vote for a third time.
And so last Friday, the House voted again on the withdrawal agreement. And again, as on Jan. 15 and Mar. 12, it rejected the agreement — this time by a vote of 286 in favor and 344 against. Substantially fewer Conservatives — 34 — voted against the agreement than on Jan. 15 (118) and Mar. 12 (75); nevertheless, that was enough to defeat the motion; had those 34 MPs voted in favor, the agreement would have been approved, despite the fact that the 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland voted against it, as they had on Jan. 15 and Mar. 12. As a result, the new exit date, barring a decision to participate in the European Parliament elections and a decision by the European Council to grant a further extension, became April 12.
Immediately after the vote, European Council President Donald Tusk called an emergency meeting of the European Council for April 10, at which it expects the UK to “indicate a way forward.” The Council made it clear that, if the UK participates in the European Parliament elections, seeks a further extension for a “clear purpose,” and demonstrates there is sufficient political support to achieve that purpose, an extension would in all likelihood be granted. But if those conditions aren’t satisfied, the UK will leave the EU on April 12.
On Monday, a second round of “indicative voting” took place and again, as happened last week, none of the four motions selected by the speaker for consideration received a majority. The proposal to hold a confirmatory public vote on the withdrawal agreement and framework for the future relationship was, however, supported by 280 MPs and lost by only 12 votes; the proposal to form a customs union with the EU was supported by 273 MPs and lost by only three votes; the proposal to join EFTA and the EFTA pillar of the EEA was supported by 261 MPs and lost by only 21 votes; and the proposal to revoke the Article 50 notification if a withdrawal agreement is not approved by April 11, meaning the UK would remain in the EU, was supported by 191 MPs and lost by 101 votes.
On Tuesday afternoon, after a seven-hour meeting at which her cabinet debated — at times heatedly — how to resolve the current Brexit impasse, Prime Minister May announced the UK will need a further extension of Article 50 — “one that is as short as possible and which ends when we pass a deal.” That, of course, implied the UK would decide by April 12 to participate in the European Parliament elections. But at the cabinet meeting, 14 of the participants, a majority opposed participating in the elections — which, of course, means the UK would not satisfy one of the European Council’s conditions for a further extension.
The prime minister also announced that, in order to break the parliamentary logjam after three rejections of the agreement and two rounds of “indicative voting” in which none of the alternatives gained the support of a majority, she was offering to sit down with Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Labour Opposition, and try to agree on a plan to ensure the UK would leave the EU with a deal. It was, she said, “a decisive moment in the story of these islands” — one “that requires national unity to deliver the national interest.” The ideal outcome, she said, would be agreement on an approach in regard to the future relationship between the EU and UK that she and Corbyn could put to the House for its approval and which she could then take to the European Council meeting scheduled for April 10. If they failed to agree on a single unified approach, she proposed that they agree on a number of options for the future relationship that could be put to the House in a series of votes to determine which course to pursue. The government, she said, would abide by the decision of the House and would then bring forward, under an agreed timetable, the withdrawal bill to ensure that it was approved prior to May 22 so the UK would not need to participate in the European Parliamentary elections.
In effect, the prime minister proposed that, rather than exiting without an approved agreement on April 12, as the European Council stipulated if the agreement had not been approved by the end of last week, the UK receive a further extension to May 22, thereby finessing the Council’s condition that any extension beyond April 12 would require participation in the European Parliamentary elections. Speaking to the European Parliament the next day, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made it clear that April 12 remained the “ultimate deadline” for the House to approve the agreement and that, if it has not approved it by then, “no further extension will be possible.” But the European Council may, of course, decide otherwise next Wednesday – especially, of course, if it is persuaded the cross-party talks will result in an approval of the agreement.
Many observers, both in the EU and elsewhere, breathed a deep sigh of relief when they learned of the prime minister’s eleventh-hour decision to hold talks with Labour. As Guy Verhofstadt, the Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament and someone who, as a former Belgian prime minister, is well versed in the occasional (and in Belgium, frequent) necessity of bringing parties together in coalitions, and who has frequently called for cross-party cooperation in the UK in order to break the parliamentary deadlock, said, “better late than never.” For Verhofstadt and many others, it has been painfully obvious for a long time – indeed, long before the withdrawal agreement and declaration on the future relationship were agreed in November — that their approval by the UK would require some form of cross-party cooperation. For one thing, since calling an unnecessary parliamentary election in 2017 in which the Conservatives lost their majority in the House, Theresa May has presided over a minority government. And as if that were not enough, her government has depended since then for its narrow working majority in parliament on its “confidence and supply” arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which is vehemently opposed to provisions in the agreement designed to ensure that, in all future circumstances, the Irish border remains open — which, in effect, means that, since the adoption of those provisions in Dec. 2017, the government has not had a majority in the House in regard to Brexit.
And as if being a minority government without a working majority in regard to Brexit were not enough, the Conservative Party is now, as it has been for many years, deeply — even existentially — divided over the UK’s relationship with the EU and, in particular, over Brexit. As noted above, in the first vote on the withdrawal agreement, on Jan. 15, 118 Conservatives voted against the agreement. In the second vote, on Mar. 12, 75 Conservatives voted against it. In the third vote, last Friday, 34 Conservatives voted against it. And the division over Brexit is not just one between the government and the Conservative backbenchers. Several ministers, like the hard-core Brexiters on the backbenches, were opposed at Tuesday’s seven-hour cabinet meeting to any Article 50 extension at all and wanted to leave the EU next Friday without a deal. Indeed, after the meeting, two ministers resigned from the government and more are expected to do so in the days ahead, adding to the large number who have felt it necessary to leave the government at various critical decision points in the long-running Brexit saga.
While the government’s minority status, coupled with the profound division over Europe and Brexit within the governing party, have made it apparent for some time that any agreement would require a cross-party agreement, it was nevertheless also apparent that any effort to reach such an agreement would provoke a firestorm of outrage among the hardline Tory Brexiters — most notably, among those in the rump caucus that calls itself the European Research Group — and could even presage a split in the party. And indeed, outrage over the prime minister’s announcement that she was offering conduct talks with Corbyn and the Labour Party was voiced immediately. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the ERG, accused the prime minister of proposing to work with — horror of horrors — “a known Marxist.” And Ian Duncan Smith, a former leader of the party, said, “This is an utter disaster…We are just about to legitimize Corbyn. It is appalling.” But, of course, they and the other hard-core Brexiters have only themselves to blame.
The Labour Party has long advocated a future relationship with the EU that features a permanent, comprehensive customs union, access to the Single Market, and “dynamic regulatory alignment” with the Single Market that guarantees environmental, consumer and employment rights. Any agreement between the government and Labour is likely to require acceptance by the government of those features — the essential features of a “soft” Brexit. And acceptance of those features will require the prime minister to relinquish at least some of the “red lines” she unwisely announced long before the withdrawal negotiation had even begun — “red lines” that, among other things, rule out participation in a customs union and alignment with, if not participation in, the Single Market. We don’t know yet in what shade of pink or yellow or even green the prime minister’s “red lines” will be painted over — if indeed, any, some, or all of them will in fact be painted over. But if there is to be a cross-party agreement, at least some of the “red lines” — for example, the refusal to participate in a customs union with the EU so the UK can conduct its own trade policy and the refusal to accept free movement — will have to be set aside. And that, too, will no doubt provoke outrage and threats of political reprisal from the hard-core Brexiters. But again, they have only themselves to blame.
In response to the prime minister’s proposal, Corbyn immediately said he would be “very happy” to participate in the talks: “We will meet the prime minister. We recognize that she has made a move.” On Wednesday in the House, he said, “I welcome the prime minister’s offer for talks following meetings I’ve had with members across this house and look forward to meeting her later today. And I welcome her willingness to compromise to resolve the Brexit deadlock.” Later that day, he and the prime minister met and they agreed upon a “programme of work” to find a way forward. A spokesman for the prime minister said both sides were “showing flexibility” and shared “a commitment to bring the current Brexit uncertainty to a close.” Corbyn said the meeting was “useful, but inconclusive” and that, although the prime minister’s position had not changed as much as he had expected, the talks would continue. Yesterday, the Labour team, headed by Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, and the government team, headed by Cabinet Minister David Lidington, the de facto deputy prime minister, met for more than four hours of “detailed and productive technical talks,” at the conclusion of which Sir Keir said there would be further talks.
But today, after an exchange of letters between Starmer and Lidington, it appears the talks may be in danger of stalling. Starmer for his part said that, while Labour wants the talks to continue, it’s disappointed the government has thus far been unwilling to consider any changes in the wording of the political declaration on the framework for the future relationship in regard to such matters as customs arrangement, workers’ rights and environmental standards. Lidington, for his part, proposed that the two sides agree on a separate memorandum outlining the issues Labour has raised rather than attempting to renegotiate the text of the 26-page declaration.
Also today, the prime minister wrote to European Council President Tusk to inform him of developments since the Council’s Mar. 21 meeting, including her meeting with Corbyn and their agreement to continue discussions, and to request a further extension of the Article 50 period to June 30. Acknowledging the Council’s view that if the UK were still a member state of the EU on May 23 it would be under a legal obligation to hold the European Parliament elections that day, she informed him the government was undertaking the required preparations for the elections, although its objective is to ensure that the process now underway with the Opposition will enable the agreement to be approved and brought into force in time to allow cancellation of the elections.
Will the European Council agree to the extension? Or perhaps one to another date — for example, either a shorter one to May 22 or, as Tusk would prefer, a longer one to 2020? More than anything else, the answer may depend on what happens in the discussions between the government and Labour over the next five days. Meanwhile, the Article 50 clock continues to tick toward 11 p.m. next Friday.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.