Tomorrow the House of Commons will take another “meaningful vote” on Theresa May’s latest Brexit deal. The whole thing hinges largely on the backstop.
A reminder: The “backstop” is the temporary arrangement which would keep the U.K. in the customs union and single market in order to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The trouble with the backstop is that the U.K. and the EU want diametrically opposing outcomes with regards to regulatory systems and trade. Indeed, the fact that the EU allowed no clear way out of the backstop in May’s previous deal (rejected by the Commons in January’s “meaningful vote”) was largely why it failed.
Britain’s attorney general Geoffrey Cox has since been tasked with finding a way out of this problem. He offers official legal advice to the British government. Has he found a solution?
Last week Michel Barnier, Europe’s Brexit negotiator, suggested on, um, Twitter, that Brussels is open to giving Britain a concession on the backstop. The trouble is that this is effectively back to square one: Barnier’s concession does not solve the Northern Irish problem, but rather offers an arrangement that the U.K. has already rejected.
Brexiteers believe it is impossible to the integrity of the Union to split the baby — in other words, to have Northern Ireland in a different regulatory system than the rest of Britain. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland agrees. However, if Ireland (still in the EU) and Northern Ireland (out of the EU post-Brexit) were to be under different economic rulebooks, many are concerned that there would essentially need to be a “hard border.”
The EU is exploiting this dilemma for all it’s worth — and has been since day one. At present, May’s latest deal fails to address this adequately. Which is why, in its current form, it will likely fail tomorrow.
So what happens next? Theresa May has admitted that if her Brexit deal is not passed by Parliament, then “we may never leave at all.” She may well be right.
If the deal is rejected tomorrow, then parliament will hold another vote tomorrow on whether to leave without a deal (i.e. “no deal”). There is very little appetite in the Commons for this option. If “no deal” is rejected, then most likely MPs will vote to extend article 50 (the law that states Britain will leave the EU on March 29.)
After that, who knows.