London, United Kingdom – After rejecting Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the European Union for the second time in two months, MPs have now voted against a “no-deal” Brexit.
However, the vote on Wednesday does not altogether rule out the UK crashing out of the European Union.
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A “no-deal” Brexit would remain the default option under Article 50, the part of the EU treaty that sets out the rules for leaving the Union.
May suffered another resounding defeat when the second “meaningful vote” on Tuesday ended in the withdrawal agreement being voted down by a margin of 149.
The last-minute assurances May had secured from EU leaders on Monday night did not prove enough to persuade the Eurosceptic wing of her own party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, whose votes May depends on.
May had been trying to secure legally binding changes to the backstop, a protocol in the withdrawal agreement regarded as an “insurance policy” to keep an open border in the island of Ireland. Hardline Brexiters argue the backstop would bind the UK to the EU’s trade rules indefinitely, and the DUP doesn’t want to see Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the UK.
On Wednesday, the government whipped its parliamentarians against its own motion in a bid to overturn a vote for an amendment that rules out a no-deal Brexit under any circumstances. It failed, facing a number of abstentions and one resignation.
Despite the vote against a no deal, all options remain on the table for how Brexit might resolve.
MPs will vote on Thursday on whether they wish to delay Brexit by extending Article 50.
But the decision is not unilateral. Any request for an extension would have to be unanimously approved by the 27 remaining EU member states.
The next opportunity to do that will be at the European Council meeting on March 21-22, just a week before the Brexit deadline.
“The options before us are the same as they always have been,” said the prime minister in a speech after the vote on Wednesday.
She added that MPs now have two choices: either vote for a deal or face an extension that would likely go beyond the European elections on May 23 to 26, which would mean the UK would have to take part in them.
An amendable motion tabled by the government for Thursday suggested that if MPs were to vote for a deal by March 20, the prime minister would seek a one-off, technical extension until June 30. It also noted that if a deal is not agreed, the EU is “highly likely” to require “a clear purpose for any extension, not least to determine its length”.
Former UKIP leader and Brexit architect Nigel Farage, now a member of the EU Parliament, called on the EU to veto any extension “so that both you and we can get on with the rest of our lives”.
He made the statement at the European Parliament after its lead Brexit spokesman, Guy Verhofstadt, expressed concerns a long extension could lead to the European elections being “hijacked by the Brexiters”.
A hard Brexit remains the default option until a deal is agreed, or Article 50 is revoked. While Wednesday’s events make it highly unlikely it will happen on March 29, the option remains.
Fears for the consequences of a no-deal Brexit on British businesses, as well as on UK and EU citizens, have increased since May’s deal was defeated two months ago.
Businesses, particularly smaller ones, have admitted they’re not ready.
“Our no-deal preparations are now more important than ever before,” said the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, in a tweet after the second meaningful vote.
Brexiters hold the view that no deal is better than a bad deal. Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that leaving without a deal is “the only safe route out” of the EU.
The threat of a no-deal Brexit has been key to May’s negotiating strategy with the EU.
PM’s deal or another?
The prime minister wants a third “meaningful vote” to take place by March 20 in a last-ditch bid to get a deal over the line before the Brexit deadline.
The threat that Brexit may not happen at all may persuade hardline Brexiters who have voted against the deal to finally back it.
The opposition Labour party is likely to seek to hold indicative votes on Brexit options.
“The prime minister said the choice was between her deal and no deal. In the last 24 hours parliament has decisively rejected both her deal and no deal,” said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday.
“In the days that follow, myself, the shadow Brexit secretary, and others will have meetings with members across this House to find a compromise solution that can command support in the House.”
Corbyn announced two weeks ago that his party is committed to backing a second referendum. What options would be on the ballot papers would have to be established by parliament, but they could include remaining in the EU, leaving without a deal, or a number of withdrawal options, including May’s agreement.
A second referendum would have to gain parliamentary approval, and at the moment it remains unclear if there is a majority for it. Some Labour MPs from leave-voting constituencies would side against it.
Corbyn called for a general election after the deal was defeated again on Tuesday. However, he also said the opposition was ready to work with the government to reach a consensus on a deal.
If that is the route the prime minister decides to pursue, it would be hard for her to keep her party together, according to John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and senior research fellow at NatCen Social Research.
While May said during her speech to the Commons that MPs will now have to make choices as to whether they want no Brexit, a second referendum, or a different deal, “what she did not indicate is what, if anything, the government might do to enable the house to make that choice”, said Curtice.
“What would be crucial is what amendments will be put down on Thursday to begin opening up that process,” Curtice told Al Jazeera.
The preconditions for a general election might then arise if “the government finds itself being obliged by the House of Commons to pursue a policy direction that the [Conservative] party can no longer cohere around. And, therefore, basically the administration collapses,” said Curtice.
As Parliament appears to be increasingly taking control, the question is whether that scenario is approaching.