We are closing in on the third anniversary of the UK’s referendum to exit the European Union. The decision by the British people on June 23, 2016, was overdramatically called by many as revolutionary, but it was significant without a doubt. In theory, Britain is set to leave the EU in a little more than two weeks — on March 29. Nonetheless, there might not have been a time since the vote in 2016 that Brexit actually happening was so much in doubt as today.
After a historic defeat in January in Parliament of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between the British government and Brussels, Prime Minister Theresa May was looking for a way out of the deadlock in Parliament. There have been a wide variety of opinions on May’s deal — most not overly positive, but the main criticism of the Withdrawal Agreement was that the so-called “backstop” for the Irish border was not definitively declared as temporary — which, many fear, could leave Britain in the EU’s Customs Union indefinitely and for as long as Brussels wants, making the UK a “vassal state” (read more on the “backstop” in my previous Brexit article on Mises.org).
On Monday, May got some concessions from Brussels on the “backstop,” making it possible for the UK to leave it by itself — without agreement from the EU, if the EU is breaching the negotiation standards. For the prime minister, as well as mainstream Tories (and the EU of course), this seemed like a breakthrough — but, eventually, it was deemed as not going far enough by the skeptics of the agreement, headed by the Northern Irish DUP, which is securing May’s power, as well as the European Research Group (ERG), i.e., those Tory MPs in favor of a hard Brexit over May’s deal.
Yesterday, in a second “Meaningful Vote” on the deal, it was once more soundly rejected by 391 to 242 — a little smaller gap than the first time, but still overwhelming. Today, Parliament will vote on whether a no-deal, i.e., a hard Brexit where Britain switches to WTO terms without a deal with the EU on March 29, should be possible — this option will in all likelihood also be rejected by a large margin.
Subsequently, there would be a vote on asking the EU to extend Article 50 and thus postpone Brexit until May finds a deal that could pass Parliament. This option might find agreement in Parliament, but not necessarily in the EU: all 27 national governments would have to agree to such an extension, and there are many different opinions voiced by these governments on whether an extension should happen and if so, how.
So where is Britain heading? For the moment, it is almost an impossibility to tell. Theresa May could try to get more concessions from Brussels or find some alternative arrangements to the “backstop” — both not very likely, and arrange a third “Meaningful Vote,” hoping that this time her ERG backbenchers and the DUP would vote for it. She could also simply repeat votes until, she may be hoping, “hard Brexiteers” would, in her opinion, face the reality that their vision has no way of being implemented, and thus, would finally back the deal.
An extension of Article 50 could also happen, which might also lead to more Parliament votes on the agreement — but it could just as easily lead to either a second referendum or re-elections. In the case of snap elections, Theresa May would surely be gone for good — what it would mean for the Tories and thus, Brexit, is entirely unknown. They may lead in the polls at the moment, but such a lead can easily dwindle down, as Theresa May found out herself in 2017.
In the case of a Labour win, socialist Jeremy Corbyn could become prime minister. Corbyn, in contrast to much of his own party, is not very adamant about calling Brexit off, possibly because he knows very well that the Labour constituency is much less enthusiastic about the EU than the party itself. But if hard Brexiteers are thinking that the current Withdrawal Agreement is only a Brexit In Name Only, they will be even more disappointed by Corbyn’s version, which would keep the UK in the Customs Union permanently (not even too mention his socialist policies he could implement in the country itself).
Of course, a no deal Brexit is still on the table. The biggest proponents of Brexit have been arguing that such an exit is to be preferred over a bad deal — indeed, Theresa May said so herself in 2018. A no deal Brexit would potentially cause major political and economic disruptions at the beginning with trade barriers coming in again vis-à-vis Europe (and certainly no friendlier relationship between London and European capitals). But it would also free Britain from all EU’s policies, regardless of whether it’s regulations or trade (or budget contributions). The British government has also announced already that in such an event, it would slash up to 90 percent of its tariffs, which would come quite close to the free-market dream of unilateral free trade.
How likely is a no deal Brexit, though? Not very, actually. As mentioned, Parliament will most likely reject it easily today and Theresa May is opposed to it as well. However, no deal still stays the default option in case no other agreement or extension is agreed to by March 29. Would May let the UK leave without an agreement? At least for now it seems unlikely.
This means that while the 60-something MPs from the ERG might have the best option at hand in theory, they will not find much support anywhere in Parliament or in the government for this option. Instead, by sticking with the no deal option, these pro-Brexit voices might have actually been helping in preventing what they are so adamantly fighting for: Brexit.
Chances of a no deal Brexit might have increased slightly yesterday, as chances of an orderly Brexit have gone down. But the overall possibility of Brexit actually happening on March 29 — not even talking about happening at all — have plummeted.
Hard Brexiteers had the opportunity yesterday to push a deal through Parliament which would have resulted in Britain leaving the EU in two weeks. That deal is not perfect, but it would have done the job of actually making Brexit happen. That deal, even besides that, was much better than it is commonly made out to be, as Open Europe’s Henry Newman summed it up last week.
Yet, despite finally officially making the ‘Brexit dream’ come true for themselves, they refused to. Of course, they can blame others for it: Theresa May, the EU, the opposition. And rightfully so from their perspective. But they knew that all of these other parties would not be on their side. As Alex Massie wrote before yesterday’s vote, “if the Commons is serious about avoiding a no-deal Brexit — and that is certainly the will of a majority of members — this set of arrangements, however inconvenient, is the best, hardest, Brexit available. Sometimes, however, you wonder if the ERG actually crave defeat and martyrdom.”
For me personally, I have defended Brexit from the first day it happened. I have made the case of unilateral free trade on many occasions. I have criticized, again and again, the EU’s response to the British wish to exit. And, indeed, I have put the leader of the ERG, Jacob Rees-Mogg, on a pedestal at least on one occasion.
But that all the hopes of hard Brexiteers at this point — with two weeks to the exit but with no end in sight — rests on the distant hope that May would let no deal simply happen, is surprising to the say the least. Indeed, the refusal of hard Brexiteers to face the political reality that their vision simply does not seem feasible, regardless of how unfair this may be, and that there is a solid alternative in front of them which they do not care for because it’s not perfect, is, put simply, frustrating (and can make people emotional, as you may notice reading this).
Who knows: maybe they still have a last trick up their sleeve — or maybe Theresa May will pull off some shocking stunt saving Brexit in the coming weeks or just letting no deal as the default option happen. But the events of the past days and weeks make this look rather unlikely. Instead, Brexit, this decision which was hailed as a great opportunity, is becoming, as Bob Seely noted, Hotel California: “You can check out any time but you can never leave.”