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UK parliament votes have made a no-deal Brexit 'likely'

Justin Tallis, AFP | A Union flag lies from a flagpole opposite the Elizabeth Tower, commonly reffered to as Big Ben, at the Houses of Parliament in central London on June 7, 2017.

British MPs voted against the idea of "no-deal Brexit" on Tuesday, but shot down two proposals providing the means to avoid it and asked Theresa May to pursue a course the EU refuses to accept. Experts say this makes no deal all the more likely.

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In a vote on January 29, the House of Commons (the lower house of the British parliament) passed a non-binding resolution stating its opposition to a no-deal Brexit, out of fear that such a sudden rupture with the EU would lead to shortages of food and medicine, with UK ports in gridlock as decades-old provisions for seamless trade with the continent come to an abrupt end. Adding to those concerns, the Bank of England says a no-deal outcome could plunge the world’s fifth-biggest economy into an 8 percent recession.

Unfortunately for the lawmakers who won that symbolic vote, no deal is the default option. Unless MPs accept a deal, delay Article 50, or revoke this legal mechanism for leaving the EU, the UK will crash out of the bloc at 11pm London time on March 29, without any exit arrangements.

‘No majority for anything that would avoid no deal'

MPs also voted on January 29 to deprive themselves – for now – of two escape routes from the threat of no deal. The Commons narrowly rejected an amendment to May’s deal tabled by Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles – centrist Labour and Conservative MPs respectively – which would have allowed lawmakers to vote on asking the EU to extend Article 50 and thus delay Britain’s exit from the bloc.

What is more, the House voted down a proposal put forward by Dominic Grieve, a former Tory attorney-general, to force the government to give MPs time to consider alternatives to Prime Minister May’s rejected deal – such as Labour’s plan to keep Britain in the customs union, the so-called ‘Norway option’ to stay in the single market, or a second referendum with an option to stay in the EU.

‘‘No deal is now likely,” Nicolai von Ondarza, a European politics analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, told FRANCE 24. “There is a symbolic majority in the British parliament against no deal but no majority for anything that would avoid it.”

‘No alternative to backstop’

Instead of finding a safeguard against no deal, the Commons passed an amendment put forward by Conservative backbencher Graham Brady, under which it will accept May’s withdrawal agreement (after rejecting it in the biggest parliamentary defeat for a sitting government in British history on January 15) as long as she goes back to Brussels and gets rid of the backstop clause, designed to maintain an open border in Ireland.

This provision is anathema to Europhobic Tory backbenchers and the DUP – the hardline Northern Irish unionists whose deal with May is keeping the Conservatives in power – because it would treat Northern Ireland differently from Great Britain by keeping the former in the single market and the latter in the customs union, and could only be terminated when both London and Brussels have found a mutually satisfactory solution to the border question.

After the Brady amendment passed, the EU immediately ruled out any renegotiation – in forthright terms. Both the Irish Republic and the UK are legally committed to avoiding a hard border, under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, and Brussels has unwaveringly supported Dublin’s efforts to ensure a frictionless frontier after Brexit.

“The question is: in order to get a deal, would the 26 other countries of the EU – to put it bluntly – screw the Irish?” said Quentin Peel, a British and European politics specialist at Chatham House in London, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “Their doing so is highly unlikely, if not out of the question.”

“The Europeans are very serious in saying that there is no alternative to the backstop,” noted Elvire Fabry, a Brexit specialist at the Institut Jacques Delors, a Paris-based, Europe-focused thinktank. In light of this impasse: “It seems that no deal is between 50 to 60 percent likely,” she told FRANCE 24.

‘Sensible centre’ to try and stop no deal?

If May has failed to agree a revised deal with the EU by February 13 – as analysts expect, given her commitment to removing the backstop – the Commons will vote again on her Brexit plans the following day.

At this point, “MPs whose preferred forms of Brexit are considered less likely will have to reconsider; currently people are stuck on their first choices, and will have to find somewhere where parliament has a majority,” Jill Rutter, programme director at the Institute for Government thinktank in London, told FRANCE 24.

“There is very much a possibility of the Cooper-Boles amendment being resurrected on February 14 – another attempt by the sensible centre of British politics to try and force a stop to no deal,” Peel added.

Yet it remains to be seen whether enough MPs would change their minds in favour of Cooper-Boles – or against the Brady amendment’s quixotic insistence that May gets the EU to replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements” – to provide a parliamentary majority to break the deadlock and steer Britain off the path towards no deal. For its part, the European Research Group – a faction of 60 Tory backbenchers committed to hard Brexit, led by prominent right-winger Jacob Rees-Mogg – has shown no sign of changing its position on either issue.

“The problem is a group of Brexiteers who want to get Britain out of the EU by severing ties at all costs,” said von Ondarza. “They are not well-versed in details on the EU’s functions – but have dominated the public debate and discussions within the Conservative Party.”

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