Though the British referendum on leaving the European Union took place in June 2016, three years later, with Brexit’s drop-dead date just a week away, the country appears no closer to figuring out how or when a plan will be executed.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Theresa May hastily announced she would seek an extension of the April 12 deadline set by EU officials in hopes of brokering a new deal with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to put before Parliament that would garner majority support. It’s a Hail Mary play, some analysts say. May’s three previous proposals were overwhelmingly defeated in recent weeks and a series of votes earlier this week in Parliament on other options — including whether to hold a second referendum — yielded no clear majority. If the government cannot get a deal in place, and the EU doesn’t grant an extension, the U.K. faces the economically and politically disastrous prospect of “crashing out” altogether, a possibility most U.K. voters, weary of the stalemate, have nevertheless said is simply untenable.
To make sense of the chaos, the Gazette spoke with Amanda Sloat, senior fellow with the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, about the complicated and fast-moving events surrounding Brexit, the dwindling options facing May’s government, and the possible scenarios if the U.K. can’t reach an agreement in time.
GAZETTE: Prime Minister May announced Tuesday that she’ll seek a “short extension” to delay Brexit again while she tries to hash out a plan with Corbyn to get a deal done by April 12 and avoid having to participate in the European elections in May. Your thoughts on her announcement, and why such a rush to avoid these elections?
SLOAT: The EU is very strict on the European Parliament deadline. That is something that they are taking extremely seriously. One of the worst-case scenarios for the EU is to have the U.K. still be a member of the European Union with Brexit not yet completed but the country not having held European Parliament elections. And that’s because decisions that would be taken by the EU without appropriate British representation could be challenged in court as being illegal or illegitimate. The EU needs to start making decisions about its next budgetary cycle. The European Parliament needs to confirm the president of the European Commission and the other commissioners, and so they are being very strict on that deadline. April 12 is the last day that the British government can bring forward legislation setting up Britain’s participation in the European Parliament elections, and so that’s why the EU set April 12 as a deadline for the U.K. to tell them what their next steps were going to be.
For the EU, the May 22 date is also a hard deadline because European Parliament elections are going to be held between May 23 to May 26 across the EU. [Brexit was originally planned for March 29, but the EU agreed that Britain could extend that deadline until May 22 if Parliament passed May’s deal by March 29.] Different member states have different days when they hold elections.
Those two dates are very specific to the European Union for legal reasons, both domestically in the U.K., and then also legally within the EU in terms of when it is they need the U.K.’s decision. In terms of Theresa May’s announcement, I think part of it was trying to take back control from Parliament.
In terms of what Theresa May said, I think a couple of things are significant. One, she has acknowledged that her deal is not getting through Parliament as is. Second, she recognized that the EU was not going to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement — that any change would have to be done to the political declaration. This means the backstop must remain. Third, she recognized that if any agreement she reaches with Corbyn can’t get through, then you would need to have a series of indicative votes. The result of that vote would be binding on the government, whereas in the past, she had just seen those indicative votes as advisory. So it does create an interesting situation now for Theresa May and especially for Jeremy Corbyn to see if there’s somewhere they can meet in the middle that provides some sort of agreement that the majority of Parliament can get on board with. But I think it’s going to be difficult because there are divisions in both political parties. May and Corbyn have had conversations in the past on trying to find a way forward, but they have not reached agreement. The big question here is whether Theresa May is going to essentially bend to what Jeremy Corbyn has been advocating, which is a softer Brexit in the form of a customs union. There are also questions for Corbyn about requiring a second referendum, as much of his party wants to do.
GAZETTE: After May’s proposed deal failed for a third time last month, there were a series of Parliamentary votes on alternative options, all of which failed to garner a majority of support. Can you explain what’s been happening and why has it been so complicated to find common ground?
SLOAT: Under British domestic law, Parliament needs to ratify Theresa May’s Brexit deal. In the domestic legislation, it’s described as a “meaningful vote.” In particular, they need to vote on two documents that comprise the Brexit deal May negotiated with the EU. One is the withdrawal agreement — which is legally binding and what the EU said it would not renegotiate. It’s essentially the divorce settlement, and includes the financial arrangements, protection of the rights of British nationals living in the EU [and] EU nationals living in the U.K., and says no hard border for Northern Ireland.
The second document is the political declaration. That is not legally binding, but it sets out a series of guiding principles that the U.K. and the EU would follow in the next stage of negotiations, when they are discussing what their future relationship looks like. Theresa May has held two “meaningful votes,” both of which were defeated. The speaker of Parliament said May could not bring the same legislation back to Parliament for a third time if nothing had changed in the text. So what [she] did last week was split the deal into its two constituent parts. She brought the withdrawal agreement before Parliament, because the idea was if the Parliament could agree on the withdrawal agreement by March 29, that would get them the automatic extension that the EU had already offered to give the U.K. time to pass the remaining implementing legislation by May 22. In order for that to count as a “meaningful vote,” Parliament would also have to ratify the political declaration, but that could be done by attaching it to other pieces of legislation going through. But it failed anyway.
So then Parliament took a series of indicative votes. Last week, they voted on eight topics and [Monday] they voted on four, setting out the range of alternative options that Parliament could consider. A couple of things have become clear from this. One, there is no majority in Parliament for a hard Brexit. Parliament generally agrees that they want to leave with a deal except for some of the hardline Brexiteers, who would be content leaving with no deal. What was interesting in the votes last week and this week was that even though Parliament doesn’t want to leave with no deal, they were not prepared to pass legislation to prevent that from happening.
Second, there was consideration of whether or not to hold a second referendum. That also did not pass, but in both votes, it got the largest number of votes in support, even though it was ultimately defeated.
Third, there was a series of options related to a softer Brexit in the form of a customs union or a single market. Last week, there were several different permutations. In the vote [Monday], there were two options. One was just to stay in the customs union. The other was the common market, which would involve elements of the single market, which many hard Brexiteers don’t like because of the implications surrounding the “four freedoms” and the fact that the U.K. would not be able to stop the free movement of EU nationals. With the customs union, it’s beneficial because the U.K. would stay part of the EU customs union and therefore, be able to trade goods within the EU on a tariff-free basis because they would have a common external tariff. The downside of that for many Brexiteers is that it would limit the U.K.’s ability to negotiate free-trade agreements with other countries because they would be bound by these tariff requirements within the EU. The vote in support of the customs union was actually quite close. It was close last week and then on Monday it was only defeated by three votes. So clearly, in terms of alternative options, the greatest amount of support in Parliament seems to be leaning toward a soft Brexit, particularly in the form of the customs union. That said, there were also numerous abstentions, so it’s hard to get an accurate sense.
GAZETTE: Is holding a second referendum vote still a possibility?
SLOAT: Yes, it theoretically is at the moment. All options are on the table. One of the biggest problems is that there is not majority support in Parliament for a second referendum, and we have seen that with both sets of indicative votes. Theresa May is very opposed to a second vote, as she believes the referendum was binding.
There certainly have been questions of disinformation during the referendum campaign; there have also been accusations of Russian interference, Russian money during the campaign. A lot of British government officials will acknowledge that there was disinformation, that there was Russian money, but their attitude has been that that does not significantly change the outcome of the referendum. So they’re still operating under the belief that was a legitimate expression of the British public’s attitude. And the reality is, if you look at opinion polling, there certainly has been a slight shift in terms of support for remaining, but it is only a couple of percentage points. It is not overwhelming. Most people have not significantly changed their minds.
GAZETTE: Which outcome is in the best interest of the European Commission?
SLOAT: The EU’s top preference would have been that the U.K. hadn’t left in the first place, because Brexit is not going to be beneficial to them. Their second choice is for the U.K. to leave with a deal. Even though the EU has been doing a lot of messaging about their contingency planning and their readiness for no deal, that is not a great outcome for them. And so I think notwithstanding their growing frustration with the messiness of the situation, they are prepared to try to help facilitate what the U.K. needs to do to leave with a deal, which is why I think you saw some positive noises coming out of EU leaders in response to May’s announcement.
GAZETTE: Prime Minister May staked her position on the last meaningful vote and lost. What happens to her going forward — does she stay in power with an extension, a no-deal?
SLOAT: She’s been on the clock for a while and in normal political circumstances it would be pretty extraordinary for a prime minister to have suffered the scope of defeat that she did twice and still remain as prime minister. There are plenty of people waiting in the wings who would like to take over once the deal is done. Theresa May offered last week to resign after the deal was done — if it passed — and let somebody else lead the second phase of negotiations. I think there would be a lot of people scrambling for that position, but nobody necessarily wants to be the one holding the hot potato at the moment.
The other thing is, you have unhappiness in the Labour Party. You have some grassroots members who are unhappy with Jeremy Corbyn and the direction he’s taking the party. There have been accusations that Corbyn has not been handling anti-Semitism within the party well. He himself has been waffling on the question of Brexit and there is some internal nervousness about the prospect of him being prime minister. One of the more interesting things that has come out in the last couple of weeks has been the establishment of the Independent Group, which was eight Labour MPs and three Conservative MPs forming this new political grouping in a response to some of these frustrations with Corbyn and Labour and growing tribalism in party politics, and also a desire to have a second referendum.
GAZETTE: What’s the public attitude about all of this? Has it shifted as this has dragged on?
SLOAT: People are tired of the uncertainty; they’re ready for it to be over. For people who are opposed to Brexit, there’s continued hope that all of this delay means that it won’t happen. You had several hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets of London last weekend for a second vote; you had over 5 million people signing a petition to revoke Article 50 and stay. So on one hand, you have a lot of movement on that side to try to find ways to have a second referendum, to have Brexit not take place. On the other hand, among those who voted to leave, there is anger and frustration over the fact that the U.K. has not yet left. It’s been almost three years since people voted for this and I think they are quite bemused and frustrated by the fact that it has proven so complicated to leave the EU, and there’s a desire to just get on with it, even if it means no deal. If you look at the opinion polls generally, the public really is split. So even though there’s also frustration with Parliament for not being able to resolve it, Parliament is also representing a very divided public.
GAZETTE: What happens to the U.K.‒EU relationship? What will be the factors that determine how that relationship moves forward? Will it depend on U.K. and EU leadership?
SLOAT: One, I think the way the U.K. leaves the EU is going to end up being a determining factor on the future relationship. If there is a negotiated deal, then there is an orderly process for moving forward and addressing the relationship. If the U.K. crashes out, then I think there’s a lot of scrambling to try to pull together piecemeal arrangements and address the situation.
Then there’s this question of who is leading Britain in the second phase of negotiations. Even if Parliament [supports] the existing deal, it really is only the end of the beginning. These conversations are going to continue for the foreseeable future. So if Theresa May gets her deal through Parliament, that coalition of support needs to last long enough to pass a raft of implementing legislation to conclude the process. You can’t just get a deal through and then have the government collapse. That doesn’t solve the problem. You need to get a deal through and then you also need to ratify all the legislation.
Second, Theresa May had offered to resign if her deal got through. I’m not sure how this tweak of working with Corbyn plays into that. I assume her own Conservative party members would want to hold her to that pledge and they would continue to expect that she would leave at some point in the summer. And then that gets at what you’re asking, which is I think the concern by some in the Conservative Party, certainly within the European Union, is that if one of the hardline Brexiteers ends up becoming prime minister, they are going to take a much harder-line approach in terms of these future negotiations. So all that we are doing in this stage of the process is trying to finalize the divorce. The next stage, which could end up taking a number of years potentially to conclude, is determining what the contours of the future of the relationship look like.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.