Talk about taking things to the 11th hour.
The vote came during a week filled with Brexit debate in the UK Parliament. Just days earlier, on March 12, Prime Minister Theresa May resubmitted her withdrawal plan for consideration by MPs. While the proposal was not rejected quite as drastically as the 432 to 202 loss May experienced in January, the plan was defeated by 391 to 242.
May had hoped that the looming March 29 exit date and warnings of catastrophe from the Bank of England in the event of a no-deal Brexit would sway lawmakers to back her deal.
“This was a bad deal in January when it was rejected by the largest margin in parliamentary history. And it is a bad deal now,” said Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party.
British lawmakers also voted against the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal under any circumstances.
Reaction from the EU
In a word: frustration.
For months, European leaders have repeatedly stated that the Brexit deal put forward is the “only one available.” And after agreeing to last-minute talks on compromises to help May push her deal through Parliament, MPs’ rejection of the plan for a second time drew exasperated reactions from EU leaders that took no one by surprise.
“Again, the House of Commons says what it doesn’t want. Now this impasse can only be solved in the UK,” said the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. “If the UK still wants to leave the EU in an orderly manner, this treaty is, and will remain, the only treaty possible.”
“There will be no further interpretations of the interpretations and no further assurances on the reassurances,” Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, declared following the last-minute talks.
Brussels has also said that the MPs’ vote to block a no-deal Brexit in any circumstances was a meaningless action, with the EU’s deputy negotiator, Sabine Weyand, quoted as saying it’s like “the Titanic voting for the iceberg to get out of the way.”
“There are only two ways to leave the EU: with or without a deal. The EU is prepared for both,” said a European Commission spokesperson. “To take no deal off the table, it is not enough to vote against no deal — you have to agree to a deal. We have agreed to a deal with the prime minister, and the EU is ready to sign it.”
What Happens Now?
The UK Parliament has voted to postpone the Brexit deadline, but that doesn’t mean it automatically gets an extension.
It’s now up to the EU to agree to an extension to Article 50, the legal process for the UK’s withdrawal, and all 27 member states must approve any delay in the Brexit process.
There’s no doubt that the EU will ask for clarity on why it should grant an extension, and has already stated that a reason for the delay can’t be to facilitate more negotiations.
While many do expect the EU to grant the extension, that’s not something the UK should take for granted. And for any Brexit delay to occur, May must formally request an extension during the upcoming EU summit.
May has said she would ask the EU for a “short limited technical extension” until June 30 if Parliament approves her Brexit deal on March 20. And yes, this is the same deal that has been rejected twice.
However, if MPs vote down her plan a third time, May has warned of the possibility that any delay would be a long one well beyond the end of June.
In what could be a bit of foreshadowing, Donald Tusk, the European Council president, has already suggested that European leaders be open to a long Brexit delay.
“During my consultations ahead of [the EU leaders’ summit], I will appeal to the EU 27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it,” Tusk tweeted.
A lengthy delay would also mean that the UK would be required to participate in the European Parliament elections in May 2019.
“I do not think that would be the right outcome,” said May in a statement. “But the House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken.”
The problem is that Parliament has proven twice that it doesn’t like May’s deal, MPs rejected a vote on a second referendum, and made it clear they didn’t want to see a no-deal Brexit. So it begs the question of what exactly British lawmakers want to see happen. And the delay doesn’t put them any closer to solving that deadlock.
Though MPs voted against a no-deal Brexit, that doesn’t change the legal default position which is that the UK will crash out of the EU unless a deal is approved or Brussels agrees to an extension.
Until one of those happens, the UK is still set to leave the EU on March 29.