The Brexit deadline that wasn't: What happens now?

Niklas Hallén, AFP | Union and EU fags flutter outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London on March 28, 2019

For two years, March 29 has been the deadline for Brexit. Amid debate over details, Britain's exit has been delayed. As Parliament rejected Theresa May’s exit deal for a third time on Friday, we look at what the future might hold.


Ever since the UK voted to leave the EU in a close referendum on June 23, 2016, Parliament has been thrown into disarray over the terms of the divorce deal.

Debate has been raging over whether there should be a soft Brexit (Britain leaves the EU, but remains in the bloc’s single market and customs union) or a hard Brexit (Britain leaves the EU and its single market and customs union). Complicating matters are discussions of just how hard a "hard Brexit" should be.

Meanwhile, the prospect of a chaotic, no-deal Brexit (Britain crashes out of the bloc with no trade agreements and no transition period) looms over negotiations. And as millions of Britons have made clear in a petition, others want to see Article 50 revoked and Brexit cancelled altogether.

Yet plans for Brexit continue. The divorce deal Prime Minister Theresa May struck with the European Union last year has now been shot down three times.

And Britain's MPs remain as divided as ever. Given the chance to break the stalemate in a series of “indicative votes” on alternate Brexit options on Wednesday, all eight proposals failed to attain a majority.

On Monday, they are scheduled to hold a second round of voting on the most popular alternatives.

But the clock is still ticking.

The EU had given May until 11pm London time on Friday to secure approval for her deal if the UK was to be granted an automatic delay of its departure date to May 22. But after lawmakers rejected it, Britain now has until just April 12 to announce a new plan or crash out of the bloc without a deal.

As MPs scramble to agree on what to do, the chances of a no-deal Brexit have never looked higher, sparking fears of food and medicine shortages, and trade and transport chaos as border checks are reintroduced.

Screengrab | France 24

Maybe or maybe not

The beleaguered May, in a bid to push her deal through for a third time, offered to step down on Wednesday if her deal was approved by MPs.

By late Thursday she’d been given the green light by Speaker of the House John Bercow to submit her withdrawal agreement (the first part of the deal, which excludes the political declaration) to MPs on Friday. In a political U-turn, leading Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson said they voted for the deal.

But Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s party, voted against the withdrawal agreement over concerns that it treats the region differently from other parts of the UK.

“If she (May) loses, then everything hangs on whether Parliament could [in a second attempt] pass a different set of proposals. If the latter occurs, the EU would need to grant a further extension to the Article 50 process. It is not 100 percent certain they would do so,” Tony Travers, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics (LSE) Department of Government and the director of LSE London, told FRANCE 24 before the vote.

Should the withdrawal agreement fail to pass, MPs may be galvanised into finding fresh consensus.

New referendum?

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of London on Saturday in a “Put it to the People” protest – the country’s largest since the Iraq war. But both a people’s vote and revoking Article 50 failed to find consensus among MPs on Wednesday.

May has repeatedly ruled out cancelling Brexit, saying it would undermine democracy by ignoring the 51.89 percent of the Brits who voted to leave the bloc back in 2016.

Iain Begg, professorial research fellow at the European Institute at the LSE, told FRANCE 24 that another referendum on the issue of Brexit “remains possible" but that at the moment he only sees a 30 percent chance of that happening.

Travers agreed: “Most MPs of all parties do not, in their hearts, want another referendum. They think it would be divisive and might produce another close result. But if all else fails, it may be the only way forward."

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