Brexit so far has been a story of the United Kingdom’s political class losing its authority. Last week’s three-day voting spree in the House of Commons was the culmination of a two-year effort by the U.K.’s government and Parliament to extract the country from the European Union, to “take back control,” as the Leave campaign slogan promised. Yet those votes—rejecting the prime minister’s Brexit deal Tuesday, rejecting both the option of a no-deal Brexit and the option of a second referendum on Wednesday, and voting to delay exit Thursday—demonstrated that neither the ruling party nor any other parliamentary faction commands the majority to do that in practice. In fact, the only tangible outcome of the last week has been, ironically, to shift control of Brexit’s fate to the EU.
One of the reasons the U.K. finds itself in this situation is that it was not clear from the start who should have gained control as a result of Brexit. Theresa May’s government assumed the task of implementing the referendum’s result lay with the executive. Their plan was to trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaty—the legal process by which an EU member state initiates the withdrawal process—without consulting the legislative branch, Parliament. That seemed to make a mockery of the very value over which the U.K.’s departure from the EU was fought in the first place: parliamentary sovereignty. The challenge to May’s plans didn’t come from the Commons, but from a civilian, Gina Miller, who took the government to court and won. As a result, Parliament had to debate and vote on whether it approved the initiation of the U.K.’s exit from the EU. The bill passed comfortably in February 2017 but set a precedent: The government couldn’t simply do as it pleased when it came to Brexit terms—it had to get Parliamentary approval. May had to promise Parliament a “meaningful vote a vote on the government’s final withdrawal agreement with the EU. It is this meaningful vote that May has been trying, and failing, to win since she struck her deal with the EU back in November.
Last Tuesday, May’s withdrawal deal was defeated in Parliament by 149 votes, only two weeks ahead of the U.K.’s scheduled March 29 departure date. It was a better result than January’s, (when a near identical deal was rejected by the greatest margin in modern parliamentary history) but still nowhere near a majority. It appears as though the Prime Minister has lost control of Brexit, her government’s main preoccupation, and that Parliament has taken over. But things are never that simple when it comes to Brexit. Parliament is divided in different factions, aiming for different outcomes, yet without the power to bring any of those outcomes about.
A group of ultra-Euroskeptic Conservative MPs, the European Research Group (ERG), are opposed to May’s deal because of the so-called backstop, a provision that avoids the creation of a hard border between Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU) as a result of Brexit. The absence of such a border is integral to the Good Friday Agreement which ended decades of violence between the two countries, but hardcore Brexiteers don’t like the idea of keeping Northern Ireland (and, by extension, the U.K.) in a European customs union to fulfill that requirement. Instead, the ERG favors a so-called “no-deal Brexit” wherein the U.K. leaves the European Union without any arrangements in place. The option is predicted to lead to severe economic disruption, but prominent Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson has called it the only way that the country’s self-respect can be preserved. The DUP, a Northern Irish party propping up May’s minority government, has also taken this position. No-deal is still legally the default if the U.K. can’t come up with a deal before the deadline, so the ERG and DUP are hoping that by blocking May’s deal, no-deal becomes more likely. The majority of Parliament, however, finds a no-deal Brexit unacceptable, and last Wednesday voted to rule it out as an outcome.
As demonstrations of sovereignty go, this is functionally meaningless: To actually avoid a no-deal default, Parliament must either vote through some withdrawal agreement or stop Brexit altogether. At the moment, there is no majority for either of those alternatives. Or if there is, we don’t know it, as the option of holding “indicative votes” to find a majority for an alternative path was rejected, thus preserving a shroud of mystery over how the people’s elected representatives think Brexit should be resolved.
Parliament, then, is no more in control of Brexit than the prime minister is. A natural way of resolving this impasse would be to hold a second referendum, giving the people that voted for Brexit in the first place the power to decide what should happen next, but this too has been defeated in last week’s votes.
Given the impasse and looming Brexit deadline on the 29th of March, Parliament came together in agreeing to ask the EU for an extension. That essentially gives the EU control over the next stages of Brexit—something it will likely decide at the EU summit later this week. To begin with, all other 27 EU members must agree to the U.K.’s request. In all probability they will, despite concerns that no-deal zealots have been lobbying countries like Italy and Poland to veto the extension. But what will truly determine Brexit’s future is the length of the extension the EU will agree to. The British government will have to offer reasons why more time can facilitate Parliament’s approving a withdrawal deal. Theresa May favors a short extension, but it’s hard to see the justification for it. It is unlikely that substantial enough changes can be made to the prime minister’s current deal in a short time frame—the speaker of the House warned on Monday that a third meaningful vote on a lightly tweaked version of May’s plan would violate parliamentary convention. A short extension would also not allow time for other avenues, like a second referendum or a general election, to become available. If the EU favors a longer extension instead, as Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has hinted, all bets are off. The U.K. will have to participate in the European Parliament elections in May, whose results could create a new political dynamic, including the possibility of a general election or a second referendum giving Brexit a whole new direction. That longer extension, then, would grant the U.K. more autonomy and options about how to proceed.
Autonomy was indeed one of the reasons the U.K. voted to leave the EU in the first place. Ironically, that freedom is now dependent on the EU granting it.