Brinkmanship could push Brexit to last chance saloon
Theresa May updated Parliament on Brexit on Tuesday, highlighting her latest diplomatic activity and asking for “more time” — until Feb. 26 — to agree changes to the so-called Irish backstop. Yet there are growing signs that UK-EU talks will go well beyond this month, potentially right up until the March 28/29 political wire, increasing the prospects of significant political miscalculation, market volatility, and a chaotic no-deal exit.
On Tuesday, May highlighted a range of activity underway on the Brexit front. This included the resumption on Monday of formal talks between the UK and EU-27 to try to find acceptable, legally-binding changes to the Irish backstop, including potentially putting a time limit on how long it can stay in place.
However, given the huge uncertainty over whether Brussels will budge on these points before Feb. 26, if at all, many are now already looking to the European Council’s summit on March 21-22 as the most likely Brexit withdrawal “end-game moment.”
By any standards, London and Brussels kicking the can down the road in this way to late March would be brinkmanship diplomacy of the highest order, and it remains possible that the UK Parliament could yet reassert itself. For now, however, it is small wonder that a growing number of May’s critics are accusing her of deliberately seeking to “run down the clock.”
Critics charge that, by the prime minister sticking to her multiple “red lines” over issues such as the UK leaving the EU Customs Union, what she is really trying to do is get to the stage where Parliament ultimately faces a binary choice between her unpopular withdrawal agreement and a no-deal exit. Remarkably, such a stark choice might encourage enough MPs to back her plan, despite widespread antipathy toward it, rather than risk the potential chaos of the alternative.
With political and economic angst rising over Brexit, there are several other key deadlines on the horizon this month, both economic and political. On Feb. 20, for instance, there is a key international treaty ratification deadline for the UK. This stems from the fact that about 80 of around 100 post-Brexit international treaties with other countries remain to be ratified by Parliament, a process that — barring “exceptional cases” — require 21 sitting days of legislators to complete.
Moreover, on the economic front, UK exporters are being increasingly inconvenienced by ongoing Brexit uncertainty. Take the example of exporters to Asia, whose goods can take five to six weeks to get to markets like Japan.
After Feb. 17, ships setting sail for Japan from the UK, and vice versa, could arrive after March 29 and find themselves in the middle of no-deal tariff mayhem. This raises the prospects of goods being stuck in ports or facing hefty fines, but this potential problem is already a reality for ships that have set sail in recent days for even further flung destinations, like New Zealand and Australia, which is a journey of around 50 days from the UK.
Yet, despite this significant political and economic pressure to secure a deal in February, many are already turning to the March summit of EU presidents and prime ministers. This is very likely the last chance saloon for concessions from the EU, or indeed an Article 50 extension request from the UK, which would require the unanimous consent of all 27 other member states.
It is small wonder that a growing number of May’s critics are accusing her of deliberately seeking to 'run down the clock.'
In such circumstances, where the outcome of EU-UK talks is still not clear by March’s summit, there are at least three main scenarios. The first is the prospect of a no-deal exit, which both sides are now ramping up preparations for given the chaos that could ensue.
A second possibility, should May get final concessions from the EU-27, would be expediting votes from March 23 through both the House of Commons and the Lords. While primary legislation of this sort can be rushed through quickly, in principle, the government cannot rule out a significant number of amendments being tabled that could still make the March 29 departure date unattainable.
The withdrawal deal would also need to be ratified by the European Parliament. Here, a Strasbourg meeting of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from March 25 to 28 would probably be the last chance for them to vote through the withdrawal agreement, leaving EU ambassadors only hours to potentially rubber-stamp the deal.
However, given the possibility of last-minute problems, or even political miscalculation in these circumstances, it seems increasingly likely that the UK would ask for an Article 50 extension so close to the March 29 wire. Should the EU-27 grant this, the UK Parliament must also vote to allow the legally binding exit date of March 29 to be changed.
Taken together, there is growing political likelihood that May and Brussels will kick out the Brexit withdrawal end-game until March, unless the UK Parliament reasserts itself. This could see maximum pressure placed on the week between March 21 and 28, which, so late in the day, would be brinkmanship diplomacy of the highest order that could yet yield the no-deal exit neither side wants.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics