Brexit talks edge closer to crashing as latest deal hits fierce opposition

Brexit talks edge closer to crashing as latest deal hits fierce opposition
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In the end, the result was historic but not in the way British Prime Minister Theresa May would have liked. On Tuesday, the House of Commons voted by a resounding margin of 432 to 202 to reject the Brexit deal between London and Brussels over the past 18 months. It was the biggest defeat against a British government in Parliament since the 1920s. While the scale of the defeat came as a surprise, the outcome was predicted. Many members of the Conservative Party, the opposition Labour Party, and the Northern Irish Unionists, who prop up the minority government, were staunchly against the deal May brought back from Brussels last fall.

With a touch of irony, she survived the vote of no confidence today. May has the numbers in Parliament to stay in power because even those in her own Conservative Party who despise her deal do not want to topple her government and risk being kicked out of office by an angry electorate, but she does not command a majority to support the agreement as it stands.

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After the tally, May vowed to press forward with exiting the European Union to deliver on the 2016 vote to leave. She has now called for an all party dialogue to discover what it will take to ensure that Brexit means Brexit. She held out an olive branch to those against her deal, calling for urgent talks with opposition parties in Parliament and promising that her “government will approach these meetings in a constructive spirit, but given the urgent need to make progress,” they need to “focus on ideas that are genuinely negotiable and have sufficient support in this house.”

As for May, her job as prime minister is safe, for now. In the highly unlikely event that she resigns, her own party cannot call a vote on her leadership until December, one year after the last vote of no confidence that she won handsomely. But while May might go down in history as the great political survivor in a Brexit drama that has already seen one prime minister and many others fall by the wayside, the fate of her Brexit deal is less certain.

First, time is not on her side. Legally, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on March 29 with or without a negotiated exit. That date could be extended with the agreement of the other 27 European Union member states. May might well be forced to extend the deadline if little progress is made on modifying the existing agreement to accommodate a majority in the House of Commons between now and March 29. Yet, an extension will face stiff resistance from members of Parliament staunchly in favor of Brexit who will worry that an extension is code for no Brexit.

Second, crashing out of the European Union without a deal would spell disaster for both sides. While some “no deal” planning has been done by both the United Kingdom and the European Union, the fallout from such an exit is impossible to measure. May has made it clear that a hard Brexit would not be in the national interest, hinting as recently as this week that remaining in the European Union is better than leaving without a deal that is good for the United Kingdom. The European Union would also suffer. For example, there are more than three million European Union citizens living in the United Kingdom. Their residency there is only guaranteed for as long as the United Kingdom remains a European Union member state.

With much at stake, the next week might be the most important seven days in the history of Brexit. There is a majority in the House of Commons who want to exit the European Union with a deal. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is privately more keen on exiting than May, but there is a great deal of uncertainty about what kind of package he will endorse.

What is clear from this week is that members need to stop procrastinating and make it crystal clear what kind of a deal the majority will support, assuming of course that such a renegotiated agreement finds support in Brussels. While the bickering in Parliament shows no sign of ending, the countdown to March 29 continues as the United Kingdom is edging closer and closer to crashing out of the European Union without an agreement.

Michael J. Geary is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He is also an associate professor of European history at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.