With only six weeks to go until Britain’s scheduled departure from the European Union, it seems as if the drama over the United Kingdom’s exit from the bloc could go right down to the wire.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is currently seeking changes to the withdrawal deal that she negotiated with the European Union. That deal was defeated heavily last month in a crushing defeat — the worst ever for a British government. It was thought that there might be a new “meaningful vote” on a revised Brexit plan on Thursday.
But no. That vote — the next big one — has been pushed back until a later date; perhaps later this month, perhaps March.
Critics say this is just the latest in May’s Olympian-like can kicking.
In a debate in Parliament on Thursday, Labour Party’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer urged lawmakers to put a “hard stop to running down the clock.”
There will be, however, a series of nonbinding votes on Thursday night could have an impact on Brexit’s path forward. Parliament is to vote on a benign motion that states it supports May’s strategy, including efforts to renegotiate the Irish backstop, which relates to the Ireland-Northern Ireland border, but if Parliament rejects the motion, it could undermine May’s efforts to show she can command a majority in the House of Commons, hindering her ability to negotiate a revised exit deal with E.U. officials.
May has said that if she hasn’t brought back a revised Brexit deal by Feb. 26, then the following day British lawmakers would have a chance to vote on the way forward. She has also refused to rule out holding the meaningful vote in the last two weeks of March.
Some lawmakers have said Brexit Day will have to be delayed beyond March 29.
Olly Robbins, Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator, was overheard in a Brussels bar this week suggesting that Downing Street’s strategy was to wait until the end of March and then offer lawmakers the choice between a revised deal or a significant extension.
May has long said that Britain will leave the bloc on March 29, with or without a deal. Many lawmakers think that leaving the bloc without a deal could be disastrous, potentially leading to food and medicine shortages.
The clock is ticking, businesses are becoming increasingly nervous, and it’s unclear if there is a landing zone on which all sides can reach an agreement.
But if a deal is struck at the 11th-hour, it wouldn’t surprise some.
“There is a tradition in the E.U. of things being settled at the last minute,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform. He noted that the Maastricht summit in 1991, for instance, came together at the last minute, and that the seven-year E.U. budget seems to be settled right before the deadline.
But he stressed that the stakes were much higher with Brexit.
“The uncertainty is much greater than usual and the consequences of getting things wrong are much greater than usual,” he said. “Normally if you’re trying to ratify a new treaty and you don’t ratify a new treaty then life goes on as before. This is not the case with Brexit. If we don’t get a deal ratified the world changes very dramatically for the E.U. and in particular for the U.K.,” he said.
What’s more, the work that normally goes on behind-the-scenes to pull things together at the last minute does not appear to have been done.
Deals in the E.U. may have the appearance of coming together at the last minute, but there is actually a lot work that goes on beforehand, said Catherine Barnard, a professor of E.U. law at Cambridge University.
“Although there is a lot of theater about it being through-the-night and last minute, the Sherpas have done a huge amount of work game-planning and negotiating and discussing before. And so what looks like a last minute drama, a lot of the leg work has already been done,” she said.
Referring to the current Brexit negotiations, she said: “What’s really worrying people at the moment, is the background legwork hasn’t been done.”