IN A SERIES of developments last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May postponed a Parliament vote on her Brexit deal with the European Union, survived a vote of no-confidence from members of her own Conservative Party, and then hit a stumbling block when EU leaders refused to renegotiate the deal. What are the hurdles in the way of Britain’s proposed exit?
Why exit, and when
In a referendum on June 23, 2016, British citizens voted narrowly in favour of leaving the EU (52% to 48%). The exit is due to happen on March 19, 2019. In November 2018, the UK and other EU countries struck a withdrawal agreement on how the exit will take place. Among various aspects, a transition period has been agreed to allow the UK and EU to make a trade deal and to give businesses the time to adjust. That means that if the withdrawal agreement gets the green light, there will be no huge changes between the March 29, 2019 exit and December 31, 2020, a BBC article explained.
The agreement covers issues such as how much the UK will have to pay the EU to break the partnership (about £39bn, the BBC reported), and what will happen to UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU as well as EU citizens living in the UK. One issue in the deal that has proved particularly controversial is the return, or avoiding the return, of a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland when it becomes the frontier between the UK and the EU.
Ireland, Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is part of the UK while the Republic of Ireland, which is not, will remain part of the EU after Brexit. Under EU arrangements, it is currently easy for people and goods to cross the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and there are fears that it will not remain so after Britain leaves. Many also fear that barriers between the north and south could revive the tensions that prevailed during the 30-year conflict that ended in 1998. To address this, the withdrawal agreement includes a “backstop” plan to ensure the border remains as smooth as possible until a trade deal between the UK and the EU is struck. On the other hand, opponents believe that the backstop plan would leave the UK subject to EU regulation even after Brexit, news reports have stated.
It was amid such concerns that Prime Minister May, anticipating that the Bill on the withdrawal agreement would not pass Parliament, decided to postpone voting on it, which was meant to take place on December 11. This move ended up leading to more criticism, and May faced a vote by her party MPs over whether she should continue to lead her party. After she won 200-117, May travelled to Brussels to ask the EU for changes in the agreement before bringing the deal back to Parliament. This too backfired, with the EU ruling out renegotiation.
The UK appears to be stuck with the deal already renegotiated. If May fails to get it past Parliament — she will get three weeks to do so — it is uncertain what happens next. The BBC article looked at a number of possible scenarios, including leaving the EU without a deal, another referendum (this would require new legislation and majority support in Parliament), and even a general election. A Reuters report Sunday quoted ministers as saying that the government is not preparing for a second referendum, and as sticking to the script that the deal could still pass through Parliament with a few changes.
While many senior “Leave” supporters reportedly believe no deal would be acceptable if preparations are made, critics disagree. According to an article in the British publication The Week, critics argue that leaving without a deal would have disastrous consequences for businesses, create chaos at the borders, drive up food prices and lead to a shortage of essential goods.