Two years after a referendum ruled marginally in favour of the United Kingdom exiting the European Union (EU) — popularly known as Brexit — British Prime Minister Theresa May has unveiled a draft agreement with the EU on the terms of the exit. The road ahead, however, remains uncertain and has been marked by controversy so far, with political leaders and activists as sharply divided over Brexit as they were during the referendum in 2016.
After the referendum, Prime Minister May gave notice to the EU (invoking a EU provision covering withdrawal — Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty) on the UK’s decision on March 9, 2017. Under Article 50, the two sides have two years to agree on the terms of the split. The UK is scheduled to leave at 11 pm UK time on March 29, 2019, which can be extended if all 28 EU member countries agree.
A EU summit is planned for November 25 to agree on a final version of the agreement. It would then be up to UK Parliament and EU member states to separately ratify the agreement.
The UK Cabinet approved the text of the draft agreement on November 14, but it will also need parliamentary approval. Those who oppose Brexit, as well as many of those who want a clean break with the EU, are unhappy with what is seen as a compromise deal. There have alrerady been two resignations, including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab. According to an article in The Guardian, the deal in its present form has little chance of making it through the Commons. Without parliamentary approval, there is no path to a negotiated UK-EU agreement, the Guardian article points out.
What’s the deal
In an article, the BBC explains that the deal covers how much money the UK owes the EU, and what happens to UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU, and EU citizens living in the UK. It also proposes a method of avoiding the return of a physical Northern Ireland border. This is a sticking point because the UK’s 310-mile land border with the EU runs between Northern Ireland and EU member the Republic of Ireland. Neither side wants to see a return to checkpoints or surveillance cameras at the border, in case it reignites trouble and disrupts free cross-border trade and flow people.
To buy more time, the two sides have agreed on a 21-month “transition” period until December 31, 2020, to smooth the way to post-Brexit relations. The BBC article points out that the government has also started planning for a no-deal scenario, while stressing it is unlikely. It has published a series of guides for industry. Some Labour leaders say it will be a “national disaster” if the UK leaves without a deal; some Conservative MPs are arguing for a “clean break”.
If it fails
Opponents of Brexit have been calling for another referendum. Reuters quoted Hugo Dixon, deputy chair of the People’s Vote campaign group, as saying: “I suspect it will get to Parliament, and Parliament will vote it down and once that happens it will be game on for a People’s Vote. Voting down a deal does not mean we crash out with no deal at all; it means we are highly likely to move to a People’s Vote with an option to stay in the EU. The no-deal scenario is not likely.”
If the deal collapses, it would trigger a crisis. The Reuters report said three former British Prime Ministers — John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — have said a second referendum is the way to resolve the crisis. The opposition Labour Party, which is also divided over Brexit, has indicated it would seek to trigger a national election if May failed to get parliamentary approval. This, however, would require two-thirds of Parliament voting in favour of an election.