May extends Brexit agony, while the UK is preparing for a no-deal scenario with Europe

Just over three months from the fateful March 29, 2019 deadline, Prime Minister Theresa May has extended the Brexit agony delaying a crucial vote on her agreement with the EU, while the British government is preparing for a no-deal scenario

May extends Brexit agony, while the UK is preparing for a no-deal scenario with Europe
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May prepares to speak outside 10 Downing Street after a confidence vote by Conservative Party Members of Parliament (MPs), in London, Britain - Photo: Eddie Keogh/REUTERS
English 21/12/2018 16:22 Gabriel Moyssen Mexico City Actualizada 17:19

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Just over three months from the fateful March 29, 2019 deadline, when the United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May has extended the Brexit agony delaying a crucial vote on her agreement with the EU, while the British government is preparing for a no-deal scenario.

As the instability grows after long months of negotiations between London and Brussels yielded a proposed agreement unsatisfactory for almost every political faction in the UK, from the hard-Brexiteers in May’s Conservative Party to the Remainers and the Labour Party, British business warned that the country is not ready for a no-deal Brexit.

On Tuesday, the five leading business groups issued a statement highlighting the 650 members of Parliament that “nobody wants to prolong the uncertainty, yet everyone must remember that business and communities need time to adapt to future changes”.

Alluding to its contingency plans, which includes stockpiling goods and materials, diverting trade, and moving offices and factories out of the UK, the statement said that the lack of progress in the House of Commons meant the government had no choice but to step up no-deal planning.

“It is clear there is simply not enough time to prevent severe dislocation and disruption in just 100 days. This is not where we should be”, it stressed.

The Treasury is allocating an extra GBP $2 billion to 25 departments for the next financial year to get ready for Brexit.

The planned measures include hiring 3,000 more customs agents and recruiting hundreds of border officers.

May called off the vote on her proposed deal with the EU on December 10, knowing that it would be heavily defeated due to the hard-Brexiteers opposition to a renegotiation of permanent access to the Single European Market and Customs Union that would, in the end, mean remaining in the bloc.

In particular, they denounced the “backstop” arrangement designed to avoid the return of a hard-border between the province of Northern Ireland and EU member state Ireland, in the event that the UK leaves without an all-encompassing trade agreement. A new vote has been scheduled for the week of January 14, 2019.

Split Northern Ireland

With Brussels stipulating that this means Northern Ireland staying in the Customs Union, large parts of the single market and the EU added tax system, the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Conservative right said this could potentially split the province’s six counties from the UK.

The British prime minister survived a vote of no confidence by her own Tory party on December 13. In a vote of 317 MPs, May won with the support of 200, with 117 voting against.

However, May was forced to promise a meeting of the powerful 1922 Committee of backbench MPs that she would stand down as Tory leader before the next general election, set for 2022. May also lost the support of the ten DUP deputies she depends on for a majority.

Earlier that day, May was humiliated again by the EU, after a lightning visit to the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who rejected any renegotiation of the deal hammered on December 8 and only offered “guarantees” that Brussels had no intention of using the “backstop” to maintain the UK in the Customs Union, if no suitable arrangement is found to keep the Irish border open.

Adding to the political chaos, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tabled a motion of no confidence in May on Monday, after she delayed the vote on the Brexit deal, saying that the country is in “national crisis.”

The agreement, Corbyn remarked, “is unchanged and is not going to change. The House of Commons must get on with the vote and move on to consider the realistic alternatives.”

Unlike a vote targeting the prime minister, a motion of no confidence in the government could precipitate an early general election if it is supported by a majority of MPs.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens have tried to force Labour to bring about that situation, by trying to amend Corbyn’s motion.

According to observers, the gridlock and Corbyn’s “constructive ambiguity” on the issue has helped open the possibility of a second Brexit referendum, once seemed unthinkable.

While there are discussions about establishing a new centrist party and some form of national unity government between the pro-Remain Tories, the SNP, Liberal Democrats and the Labour MPs loyal to former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the European Court of Justice ruled that the British Parliament has the option of unilaterally revoking the Article 50 of the treaty on the EU, ending withdrawal and maintaining full membership.

The tribunal said that a letter from London to the European Council would stop Brexit if received any time before the March 29, 2019 deadline.

The Blairite MP Chris Leslie described the ruling as a “game-changing moment,” by facilitating a second “people’s vote” after any parliamentary rejection of May’s deal.

Nevertheless, May said that “another vote would do irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics because it would say to millions who trusted in democracy that our democracy does not deliver.”

The polls show a slight majority supporting the referendum and the Remain camp winning it by a narrow margin, yet the risks are higher.

The campaign ahead of a second referendum would be even more xenophobic and hate-filled that the first, producing a British society more divided than it already is today.

Many would turn away from democracy in frustration and—with the specter of French Yellow Vests looming—it would provide a significant boost to anti-European extreme right-wing populists.

The author would like to thank all who contributed to this column for their ideas and insights. Merry Christmas and happy new year!

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen