When European leaders meet this weekend, they are expected to back the Brexit withdrawal package put forward by Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May. For one thing, the other 27 EU members no doubt want to get shot of the debilitating debacle over Britain’s exit from the bloc, which has been grinding on for nearly two and half years since the country voted in a historic referendum to leave the union.
The next move will then be May putting the Brexit package to the British parliament for a vote, probably early next month. Despite the hullabaloo last week from within her own Conservative party and the various opposition parties panning the proposed Brexit roadmap, the prime minister is betting on eventually getting enough lawmakers to vote for it. She will have to rely on opposition lawmakers, primarily from the Labour party, joining with Conservatives to endorse her proposed Brexit.
That’s because it is expected that around 50 MPs among her Conservative back benches who are for a hard Brexit will likely vote against her withdrawal plan. They view the proposal as a sellout of Brexit because it envisages a transition period of up to two years during which Britain will effectively be still part of the EU in terms of single-market membership. The hard Brexiteers dream of Britain once again becoming a buccaneering free-trading nation, just as they imagine it was during the heyday of the British Empire more than a century ago. Such nostalgia seems delusional and fatal.
In a heated three-hour House of Commons debate last week during which May was lambasted by lawmaker after lawmaker, it is evident that she is going to have a tough sell to get her Brexit proposal through a parliamentary vote. But what she is relying on is that the alternative would be so catastrophic that, in the end, parliamentarians will vote in support. If May’s Brexit package is not voted through, then the alternative is Britain crashing out of the EU on the March 29 deadline next year – four months away – with no trade arrangement in place with the bloc. Apart from a minority of hard Brexiteers, most Britons dread such a cliff plunge. The mayhem for the economy and society would be tumultuous. Nearly 50 per cent of Britain’s exports and imports are with the EU. If the country crashed out from the bloc abruptly there would be chaos from the imposition of border controls overnight. London’s financial center of Europe would be unceremoniously unplugged.
So what May appears to be counting on is the fear factor. It’s the equivalent of dangling someone over a precipice and asking them do they want to be pulled back. A majority of lawmakers may not like May’s Brexit proposal, but the alternative crashing-out scenario would be too much to bear. So they will vote to pass it, so she is betting.
European leaders have said that there is no possibility of further negotiations. In effect, they are saying that May’s package is the only one on the table. For their part, it’s either back her deal or face a cliff plunge. You can understand the EU’s frustration. The British Brexit has consumed much of the bloc’s political energy and recklessly rocked the Brussels boat. For the EU, they want to get this British debacle wrapped up as soon as possible.
If May doesn’t get the British parliament to back her plan, then the Brexiteers within her party will likely trigger their plot to topple her. Already she has been roiled with resignations by several ministers from her cabinet. Hard Brexiteers like former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson are sharpening their knives. Johnson condemned May’s Brexit proposal last week as “turning Britain into a colony of the EU”.
The mutiny within the Conservative party against May seems to have subsided this week – at least for now. An anticipated vote of confidence in her leadership has not materialized. Her party enemies are probably waiting and hoping for a parliamentary defeat of the draft Brexit plan in the next few weeks when they will spring their offensive to oust May from 10 Downing Street.
Boris Johnson – the bungling but popular figure – is being tipped as a successor prime minister. But that is no solution to British political problems. The Brexiteers may rejoice if Johnson gets the keys to 10 Downing Street, but the rest of the country would be in uproar given his gung-ho approach. At this stage, it seems that what May is offering is probably the most pragmatic way to advance the Brexit. Somebody like Johnson taking over would be back to the cliff-crash option. And while the British public and many lawmakers do not support May’s offer, they realize that it’s the least damaging option.
Of course, there is theoretically another option. That is, Britain reversing its Brexit decision and staying in the EU. European Council President Donald Tusk last week reiterated the invitation to Britain to change its mind over divorce and to re-embrace membership.
Advocates in Britain for a second referendum say that if the people had foreseen the chaos of Brexit when they voted back in June 2016, they would have opted to remain in the EU.
However, Theresa May has repeatedly said that “Brexit means Brexit” and that there will no second referendum on the question of leaving the EU. Admittedly, calling such a repeat ballot would be politically explosive. Proponents of Brexit would denounce it as a violation of popular democratic mandate. There may even be the danger of civil violence breaking out, such is the extreme political polarization within Britain over Brexit.
There seems to be no good options for Britain. It has got itself into a deadlock over Brexit. More than two years after the historic referendum to quit the bloc – after 43 years of membership – the political crisis in Britain seems to be growing, not diminishing. The impasse over Brexit is set to continue for years to come, which will take an increasing toll on Britain’s economy from the swirling uncertainty.
Britain is on a cliff edge. But the other direction is not much better either. Stepping back from the plunge, the country is facing a quagmire of political infighting and self-defeating inertia.