Vote on Brexit deal must wait until 2019


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Theresa May has delayed Parliament’s Brexit vote until the week of 14 January. What went wrong with the first vote and can Brexit be stopped?

With little chance of UK agreement on Brexit before year-end, time is running out to secure an orderly departure from the EU and guarantee the planned transition period. 

After a tumultuous week for the UK government – in which Prime Minister Theresa May postponed a Parliament vote on Brexit and saw off a leadership challenge – Downing Street has confirmed there will be no progress on the Brexit deal before Christmas.  

The “meaningful vote” required to get the Brexit withdrawal agreement through British Parliament is now delayed until after Parliament’s Christmas recess (between Friday 21 December and 7 January).

Mrs May has pledged that the vote will take place in the week beginning 14 January – just 11 weeks before the Brexit deadline. 

What happened to the original Parliament vote?

The vote was due to take place on 11 December following five days of debate. But talks were interrupted after only three days – and the vote postponed – as it became evident that the deal would face a significant defeat.

Having survived a no-confidence leadership challenge (in part by promising to step down before the next general election), Mrs May now needs to find a way to appease Parliament on a Brexit deal that the EU insists cannot be renegotiated.

The key obstacle here is the Northern Ireland “backstop”. In order to avoid a hard customs border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK territory, the backstop plan is an “insurance policy” that sees Northern Ireland retaining certain EU obligations (allowing freedom of movement for goods) until an alternative solution is agreed. While the mutual aim is to agree future trade arrangements before the planned transition period ends in December 2020, the backstop could potentially apply beyond this – and for an indefinite period. 

For ‘hardline Brexiteers’ – including Northern Ireland’s DUP – who want to sever the UK’s existing ties with the EU customs union, this is unacceptable. They demand formal reassurance that, if a backstop was triggered, it would be temporary and the UK would be able to end it without EU permission (under the current deal, securing EU agreement would delay termination by at least six months). 

Can the deal be saved?

While European Council president Donald Tusk reiterated that the withdrawal agreement – the result of 18 months of negotiations – was “not open for renegotiation”, he confirmed that they were open to “clarifications… but no real changes”. He stated that the EU had “firm determination” to agree an alternative solution to the backstop before the end of the transition period.

According to Mrs May, “There is a majority in my Parliament who want to leave with a deal, so with the right assurances this deal can be passed. Indeed, it is the only deal capable of getting through my Parliament”.

Following two days of discussions with EU leaders, she admitted “there is work to be done” but emphasised, “it is in the interests of the EU as well as the UK to get this over the line. A disorderly Brexit would be good for no-one.”

Can Brexit be stopped?

Former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is one of many high profile figures calling for another referendum “if none of the other options work”. Mrs May has rejected this approach: “let us not break faith with the British people,” she responded, warning that “another vote would likely leave us no further forward than the last”. 

For a second EU referendum to take place, it is likely that an extension to Article 50 would be necessary – something that would require the agreement of all 27 EU member states. 

However, on 10 December, the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK did not need consent from the EU27 to revoke Article 50. This means the UK could legally withdraw its formal notification of leaving the EU at any time before the Brexit deadline of 29 March 2019. New Brexit Secretary, Steve Barclay, stated the government had “absolutely no intention” of cancelling Brexit – “the government’s firm and long held policy is that we will not revoke the Article 50 notice,” he said.

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