What Is the Brexiters’ Endgame?

“I hope we can all agree we are now at the moment of decision,” UK Prime Minister Theresa May said late Thursday night in Brussels, addressing British members of Parliament. Hours earlier, she had concluded a 90-minute presentation to the European Council making the case for extending the Brexit deadline from March 29 to June 30. After finishing her presentation, she left the room. Council members then debated late into the night. They emerged with a new set of deadlines and permutations:

  • By April 12, the UK must either approve the negotiated Brexit deal (the same one that has now twice been overwhelmingly rejected by Parliament) or present a new proposal to the Council. If neither of these things happen, then the UK exits the EU that day with no deal—a “hard” Brexit.
  • If Parliament approves the negotiated deal (very unlikely), then the new official Brexit date is May 22, which is meant to give Parliament enough time to pass the necessary legislation to implement the stipulations of the deal.
  • Council President Donald Tusk said the UK still has the option of “revoking Article 50,” which means cancelling Brexit and thereby remaining in the EU. This (or a second referendum) is what the Remainers in the UK want, and what Tusk himself has said is the obvious solution. PM May unsurprisingly rejected that option outright. Meanwhile, an official petition calling for canceling Brexit has garnered more than 3 million signatures as of this writing.

Why the much shorter timetable than what May requested? April 12 is also the deadline for Britain to notify the EU if it will be holding elections for European Parliament Ministers (MEPs). The elections will be held between May 23 to 26. The European Parliament is made up of ministers representing each member state of the EU, who are elected by citizens of their respective countries. (You probably have heard of Britain’s most infamous MEP: Nigel Farage.)

For understandable reasons, the EU doesn’t want MEPs in the European Parliament from a country that has officially said it no longer wants to be a part of the EU. (Would UK MEPs’ votes count? Would they delegitimize parliamentary measures?) Indeed, politicians in May’s own Conservative Party have said that holding MEP elections in Britain—nearly three years after the 2016 Brexit referendum and after the original Brexit deadline—would incur the wrath of the party’s Brexiter-dominated constituency. One Conservative MP told New Statesman’s Stephen Bush that voters would “burn my constituency offices to the ground” if the MEP elections went ahead.

May is expected to put her negotiated deal up for a third vote this week. But even that faces its own legal hurdle. On Monday, House of Commons Speaker John Bercow ruled out a third vote on May’s deal, citing a procedural rule prohibiting the same question from, being repeatedly brought forward during the same parliamentary session. No word yet on how May will overcome that, but let’s assume that the vote will happen. Almost certainly, the deal will be rejected again.

On March 13, Parliament twice voted (in a non-binding way) that the UK should not leave the EU without an agreement. Amid the din of Parliament’s Hamlet-like indecisiveness, Donald Tusk’s January tweet has a ghostly echo: “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?”

Again, note May’s Thursday remarks: “I hope we can all agree we are now at the moment of decision.” Close readers would have noticed the unintended humor of May’s despairing grammar: it’s not just that Britain’s parliament can’t arrive at a decision; its members have differing ideas of whether a “decision” can or should be made in the first place.

Remainers reject the entire premise of the debate. They want either Brexit to be cancelled or for a new referendum that, they believe, would yield the opposite result. In other words, they want Brexit to be cancelled. Many hardline Brexiters would rather have a no-deal Brexit than May’s negotiated Brexit, or even an interminably drawn-out process.

May’s strategy to force her own party—and the portion of the opposition that isn’t staunchly “Remain”—to accept her deal is clear. May attempted to leverage the March 29 deadline to force MPs into deciding between no-deal Brexit or negotiated-Brexit. This twice hasn’t worked and there’s no reason to believe it’ll work on a third try. EU leaders have said the delay was placing the decision firmly with the UK Parliament. It was designed “to make it clear that no deal is not the EU’s choice, it is the UK’s choice,” one anonymous EU official told the Guardian. That much may be true. But no one in Europe is outside the blast radius of whatever the UK ultimately decides to do.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.