The European Union’s 27 other member states have agreed to grant the United Kingdom’s request for a concession, but have provided less time than the amount sought by Theresa May.
Should the British Parliament vote to approve the withdrawal agreement next week, then the UK’s membership of the EU will be extended until 22 May to give MPs time to pass the necessary accompanying legislation. Should, as is widely expected at Westminster, MPs reject the withdrawal agreement a third time, the UK’s stay in the EU will be extended until 12 April, and the UK will at that point need to put forward a plan for a fresh approach to the Brexit talks.
So what’s going to happen next? No-one now expects that May will be able to pass the withdrawal agreement next week. Her speech yesterday has closed off any possibility of passing her deal by alienating Labour MPs and by bringing back the possibility of a no deal Brexit, Brexiteer critics of her deal no longer have an immediate incentive to back her deal to prevent a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all either.
12 April is an immovable deadline because Parliament must pass the relevant legislation to allow the United Kingdom to hold elections to the European Parliament by 11 April. Without members of the European Parliament, the United Kingdom cannot remain a member of the European Union and its continued presence in the legal institutions of the EU risks creating a legal headache for the EU.
In practice, there is no majority in Parliament as currently constituted to pass the necessary legislation to hold European elections. One Conservative MP told me that their voters would “burn my constituency offices to the ground” if they were asked to vote in European elections three years after voting for Brexit, and that view is widely supported on the Labour benches as well. Just as there is no majority for putting the Brexit question back to the people in the House of Commons, there is no majority for holding European parliamentary elections, which would keep the possibility of a second referendum alive.
The all important next set of votes will be when backbench MPs again move to take control of the order paper, a move which is now highly likely to pass. They will use that time to hold indicative votes about a new way forward.
Jeremy Corbyn has been holding frequent meetings with European officials in the Commission and with the cross-party Common Market 2.0 group, who want the United Kingdom to leave the EU and join the EEA’s Efta pillar and form a customs union with the EU.
Many Conservative MPs, including diehard opponents of the EEA approach, now expect that the Labour leader – or more likely, one of the backbenchers from either the Conservative or Labour parties who have been meeting with him – to table a fully-worked out and negotiable set of changes to the political declaration, the accompanying document setting out the future relationship between the EU and the UK after the UK has left the EU.
May’s hope will be that the fear that Corbyn’s deal can command a majority might be enough to secure a narrow majority for her Brexit, but that is highly unlikely.
It is also far from certain that the Common Market 2.0 proposals can command a majority, though they are closer to being able to do so than any other resolution to the Brexit crisis, including May’s deal.
It may be that the United Kingdom once again ends up facing the cliff-edge on 12 April – and that without the fear of the cliff, no resolution to the Brexit crisis can be found.