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‘Plan B, what plan B?’ Five options to break Brexit deadlock

Tolga Akmen, AFP | An anti-Brexit campaigner stands outside the Houses of Parliament in London on January 16, 2019.

Advocates of Britain’s divorce from the EU had promised it would restore full sovereignty to the “mother of all parliaments”. The trouble is Parliament cannot agree what Brexit it wants, nor whether it wants one at all.

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After two years of gruelling negotiations, Prime Minister Theresa May saw her Brexit divorce deal shot down by MPs on Tuesday in the heaviest parliamentary defeat ever suffered by a sitting government.

The vote, which May lost by a whopping 230 votes, left the UK in disarray just 10 weeks before it is due to leave the EU. Its scale underscored the depth of divisions in Parliament, where more than one hundred Conservative MPs voted against their own government.

“The crux of the problem is that there is no parliamentary majority for any solution,” the Guardian’s John Henley told FRANCE 24. “There is no majority for May’s deal, there is no majority for no deal, there is no majority for a second referendum, and there is no majority for the various alternative deals mooted by MPs.”

So where does Britain go now?

Tweaking the deal

“Plan B, what Plan B?” asked the front page of French daily Le Figaro on Wednesday, summing up the dismay expressed across Europe as two years of tortuous Brexit negotiations were wiped out in a single vote.

May now has less than a week to come back to Parliament with another plan. After her crushing defeat on Tuesday, she promised MPs she would “listen” and reach out to opposition parties. But her office has downplayed the prospect of major changes to the existing deal. And opposition leaders have said they will not engage with her until she rules out quitting the EU without a deal.

The Labour Party, which has 262 MPs in the House of Commons, wants a “softer” Brexit. It has said it won’t back a deal that takes Britain out of a customs union with the EU – whereas May has made quitting the customs union one of her red lines.

Meanwhile, opponents of the deal in May’s own party have focused their attacks on the so-called “backstop” mechanism, designed to prevent the return of a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The prime minister has obtained assurances from EU leaders that the “backstop” would be temporary, but Brussels has ruled out ditching the mechanism altogether.

On Wednesday, the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, offered to return to the negotiating table if Parliament forces May to shift her red lines and finds some common ground, stressing that the ball is in the UK's court.

Above all, EU leaders say it is high time Britain made up its mind about what it really wants and comes up with working proposals. As many European commentators put it, May’s defeat in Parliament made it clear what MPs don’t want, but gave little indication of what they do want.

A delayed exit

With Parliament split, there is a growing chance Britain will seek an extension to the  exit process that expires on March 29, two years after May set Brexit in motion by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Some ministers are urging May to delay Brexit while she ponders an elusive plan B. Any delay would require unanimous approval from leaders of the EU's remaining 27 member states, something they are likely to grant for a limit period.

The European Parliament's Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, indicated he was open to a delay   but not beyond European parliamentary elections at the end of May.

"What we will not let happen, deal or no deal, is that the mess in British politics is again imported into European politics. While we understand the UK could need more time, for us it is unthinkable that article 50 is prolonged beyond the European Elections," he tweeted.

Theresa May signs the letter officially invoking Article 50.
Theresa May signs the letter officially invoking Article 50. Christopher Furlong, AFP

Georgina Wright, a Brexit specialist at the London-based Institute of Government, said EU leaders would need “a very good reason” to grant a long extension. She told FRANCE 24: “A second referendum would be one, a general election might be another, [but] just a little more time for talking is not a good enough reason.”

Back to the polls

A delay would likely also be needed in the event of two other possible scenarios: a general election or a second referendum.

An election is not due until 2022, but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to go to the polls as soon as possible. He called – and lost – a no-confidence vote in the government after May’s debacle on Tuesday, and some in his party have suggested they may attempt further such votes in the coming weeks to force an election.

May, whose own decision to call a snap election in 2017 backfired spectacularly, says a new election is “the last thing Britain needs”. Should she lose a confidence vote, her Conservative Party could still attempt to form another government with support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

Labour, which is itself divided over Brexit, has pledged to push for a better – and “softer” – deal with Brussels if it wins an election. But Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, is under pressure from MPs and party members to get behind calls for a second referendum.

Another ‘people’s vote’

The campaign to halt Brexit through a second referendum has been gathering steam as the complexity of the divorce process become clear. May’s government is firmly opposed to the idea, but many lawmakers believe a new referendum may be the only way out of the Brexit impasse, albeit a costly one.

The prime minister has said a second vote "would do irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics". Her opponents retort that Brexit has turned out to be very different from what voters were promised in 2016.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, appeared to urge pro-EU MPs to speak up after Tuesday’s vote, tweeting: “If a deal is impossible, and no-one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?”

By lunchtime on Wednesday, 71 Labour MPs had declared their support for a second referendum, putting them at odds with their party leader.

Most opinion polls now point to a majority of the British public in favour of remaining in the EU, though the margin remains too small for comfort. Experts also warn that a new “people’s vote” could be even more poisonous than the first referendum, which has left the country bitterly divided.

It’s also unclear how the question would be worded in any new vote. Many pro-EU politicians want a choice between leaving on the proposed terms and staying in the EU, but others say leaving without a deal should also be an option.

Crashing out

“No deal” is the outcome few want – but it is also the default option. If Article 50 is not delayed, Britain will cease to be an EU member at 11pm London time on March 29, with or without a deal.

The Bank of England has warned that tumbling out of the bloc with no deal to soften the exit could plunge Britain into a steep recession, and businesses warn the sudden end to longstanding trading agreements with the EU could see gridlock at British ports and shortages of food and medicines.

"Financial stability must not be jeopardised in a game of high-stakes political poker," warned Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, the body governing the British capital's massive financial district.

On both sides of the English Channel, governments and businesses have stepped up preparations for a no-deal scenario, fearing it could be triggered by accident as both Britain and the EU call each other’s bluff – until it’s too late. To pre-empt such a risk, MPs have passed legislation creating obstacles to a no-deal exit.

Video: UK businesses prepare for no-deal Brexit
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