Theresa May and the Aftermath of Brexit

On June 23, 2016 Britain voted to leave the European Union. This set off a populist wave across the Western world that resulted in, or encouraged, the election of Donald Trump and the success of a variety of right-wing and far-right European parties. After the vote, Britain embarked on a long process of negotiation that was supposed to end by March 29 of this year. Although that allowed Prime Minister Theresa May nearly three years to work with the EU on the terms of a deal, it proved to be not enough time to settle their differences.

The Brexit compromise which the two sides had reached was put to a vote in the House of Commons and was defeated, and not merely by a small margin. As the New York Times reported, the 432-202 vote to reject May’s proposal was “the biggest defeat in the House of Commons in recent British history.” Once that attempt failed, there were three options going forward: a Brexit with no deal, a new referendum that might reverse the 2016 decision to leave, or a return to negotiations.

Neither of the more extreme positions, leaving without a deal and reversing Brexit, would seem to be politically viable. But in a recent poll asking Britons to decide between staying in the EU and leaving without a deal, voters preferred staying by a seventeen-point margin (45 percent for “remain,” 28 percent for exiting with no deal). Remaining in the EU was clearly more popular than either May’s deal or no deal when all three were compared side-by-side, but most people who favored departure from the EU would understandably view this reneging on Brexit as a total betrayal of the democratic process. The 2016 referendum was supposed to commit Parliament to leave the EU regardless of what deal the government could manage to obtain, and May did campaign on the promise to respect that decision. The United Kingdom and the European Union have now agreed to postpone the date of departure, granting May several more months to construct a new exit bill palatable to both sides.

The new deadline will be October 31. As the time frame gets pushed further and further away from the public’s vote of three years ago, however, the chance that Parliament will follow through on the decision to leave diminishes. According to Roger Cohen in the New York Times, Brexit “may still happen, but the odds of it happening are not better than even.” To committed Brexiteers, the British government’s inability to follow through on separation from the European Union is frustrating. Still, May does have several complicated questions to resolve before any workable agreement with the EU becomes possible.

One is the issue of the “Irish backstop.” The establishment of a “hard border”--a more strongly enforced customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland--would automatically force Britain to keep following the EU’s trade rules in regard to the Irish republic. No one wants that to happen. The lack of confidence among Britons that this problem will be solved complicates the negotiations over Brexit and its ultimate fate. Over the next six months, we will discover whether this issue, and the many others which Britain and the European Union must still agree on if Parliament is to ratify an accord, will come to a conclusion or the Brexit vote will eventually be in effect reversed by the politicians and European bureaucrats.