British lawmakers will vote Wednesday on whether to leave the European Union without an agreement, after Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan was overwhelmingly rejected by Parliament a day earlier.
Leaving without deal could lead to economic disruption, clogged ports and stalled travel in Britain and Europe.
Fearful of disaster, many lawmakers have signaled they will vote against a “no-deal Brexit” on Wednesday evening.
The prime minister told Parliament that if it rejects a no-deal departure, it will be offered another vote on Thursday, to see if it wants to delay Brexit, which it almost certainly will.
But what then?
The gridlock that has seized the House of Commons has rattled European leaders. They have grown anxious that May is losing her authority and her way, fighting against a raucous, divided Parliament and increasingly assertive Conservative Party rebels who want to leave European Union with no deal.
The chief EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, questioned on Wednesday why there should be any further discussion with Britain or an extension of the departure date, saying that nearly three years of discussions had reached their end.
“Why would we extend these discussions?” he asked the European Parliament. The negotiations, he said, are “done and dusted. We have the withdrawal agreement. It’s there.”
Barnier warned British lawmakers they were bringing their state to the brink, whether they liked it or not.
“We are at a critical point. The risk of a no-deal has never been higher,” he said. “I urge you, please, not to underestimate that risk or its consequences.”
The chaos surrounding Brexit will not be settled with the no-deal vote. In fact, the vote is in many ways symbolic – taking the temperature of lawmakers, more than setting concrete policy. The vote is not legally binding, nor does it commit the EU to any action.
Regardless of the outcome of the no-deal vote, the default legal position remains that Britain will leave the EU on March 29 without a deal unless another agreement is reached.
Even if an extension is granted by the EU later this week, the cliff edge would simply be pushed back.
Britain must leave with some kind of agreement – which sets out terms of a transition period, the payments to the EU budget, the continuation of current frictionless trade and visa-free travel – or Britain will leave with no agreement.
Alternatively, May could seek delay, call for a snap election or try a third time to get a newly amended deal passed. Or Parliament could call for another Brexit referendum.
“Even if they vote and say ‘no deal’ isn’t want they want, that doesn’t stop it,” said Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester.
“If Parliament votes repeatedly to say ‘the moon is made of cheese,’ it doesn’t mean the moon is made of cheese. Parliament can say, repeatedly, that they don’t want no deal, but the legal reality is that no deal will happen unless they vote for something else to happen,” the professor said.
On whether to leave with no deal, May said her Conservative Party members in Parliament will get a “free vote,” which means they are not bound to follow the orders of party whips, but can make up their own mind. May herself will vote against a no-deal Brexit.
Amber Rudd, a senior Conservative lawmaker, told the BBC on Wednesday morning: “Leaving without a deal would be very bad for our economy, very bad for our security.”
Lawmakers from the opposition have publicly stated that they oppose crashing out of the bloc.
Many hardcore Brexiteers, while a minority of the overall Parliament, are expected to support a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
“I hope that Parliament will vote not to take no deal off the table,” Conservative lawmaker Boris Johnson told the BBC. Johnson, who is one of the favorites to replace May, said: “It’s crazy to disable yourself as you go into a negotiation. . . why would we shoot ourselves in the foot like that?”
In Brussels, EU ambassadors gathered to plot out their next moves, meeting in a morning session that stretched for hours.
Most countries appeared willing to accept some sort of extension to the departure date, if Britain requests it, according to one person familiar with the discussions. But there were disagreements about what Britain would have to promise in order to receive one, and a general feeling that the questions were legally complex enough that they could only truly be resolved when EU leaders meet at the end of next week.
Some EU policymakers watched with amazement at Wednesday’s maneuvers in the House of Commons, noting the energy being expended on the so-called “Malthouse Compromise” – a proposal that the EU sees as the Brits attempting to preserve the divorce deal while stripping out the parts that would guarantee an open Irish border.
Since Europeans have repeatedly said over months that such a change would go nowhere, Wednesday’s proposals were interpreted as a warning sign that some British lawmakers still have no understanding what is viable on the EU side. That would raise the possibility Britain could slide out of the European Union at the end of the month even if British lawmakers didn’t intend to do so.
Brexiteers have been accused of chasing unicorns, conjuring up magical solutions to complex situations like the Irish border problem.
That may have been what the European Union Council President Donald Tusk – known for setting off social media – had in mind when he posted a drawing on his Instagram account of a drawing of the magical creatures.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · William Booth, Karla Adam