Europe: United Kingdom (U.K.)
Special Report: U.K. PM May tries to buy time in Brexit negotiations as EU stands firm
With Brexit set to be finalized in 2019, intense negotiations have been in effect to set the conditions for the United Kingdom to disentangle itself from the European Union.
Going back to mid-2016, in the aftermath of the "Brexit" vote that heralded the exit of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union, then-Prime Minister David Cameron said that he would be stepping down as prime minister. With his political capital expended, and with his legacy tainted with the distinction of being the prime minister under whose stewardship the United Kingdom left the European Union, Cameron resigned as the head of government.
Cameron said he would stay on as prime minister for three months and would step down ahead of the Conservative party's conference. In a national address, he said, "I love this country and feel honored to have served it. Will of British people must be respected." He continued, "The British people have spoken....This was not a decision taken lightly. There can be no doubt about the result." He urged new leadership, saying, "I will reassure the markets that British economy is strong. This will require strong leadership. I’ve been proud to be prime minister for six years."
By July 13, 2016, David Cameron formally stepped down as prime minister, and after a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, the UK's head of state, May became the new head of government and the second female to hold that post since Margaret Thatcher.
In September 2016, Cameron further announced that he would be resigning from his position as an elected Member of Parliament. Cameron said that he would step down from his role as the elected representative of his Oxfordshire constituency, and allow someone else to take on that role. He explained that his presence as a “back bencher” in parliament was something of a distraction. A by-election would be called to fill his seat.
In October 2016, the new prime minister, Theresa May, announced that her country would trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin the formal process of her country withdrawing from the European Union. May also foreclosed the notion of an early general election, noting that such a course would only augur instability in the UK. Instead, ay said that she would advance the repeal the 1972 European Communities Act which took the United Kingdom into the European Common Market, now knowns as the European Union. She said in an interview with the media, "We will introduce, in the next Queen's speech, a Great Repeal Bill that will remove the European Communities Act from the statute book." The act would become effective upon the formal exit of the UK from the European Union.
On March 29, 2017, United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May formally began the process known colloquially as “Brexit’ of withdrawing the United Kingdom from the United Kingdom.
In keeping with Article 50 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty, Prime Minister May notified European Union Council President Donald Tusk via a hand-delivered letter that her country would exit the European bloc after decades of participation dating back to 1973.
In a speech to parliament, she declared, "The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union.” She added, ”This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back."
A difficult process lasting up to two years was in the offing whereby the United Kingdom would seek to negotiate the terms of its exit from the European Union. Those negotiations would largely center on the United Kingdom’s relations with the European Union with regard to trade and security.
Business-friendly Brexit framework in place but at risk
With Brexit set to be finalized in 2019, intense negotiations went into effect in 2017 to set the conditions for the United Kingdom to disentangle itself from the European Union.
By December 2017, the two sides had reached some concurrence on a framework that would ensure an orderly exit by the United Kingdom from the European bloc. The framework also outlined the terms of future trade ties.
United Kingdom Prime Minister May hailed the achievement, saying, "I very much welcome the prospect of moving ahead." The head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, declared: "I believe we have now made the breakthrough we needed."
A continuing wrinkle would be the matter of disconnecting the British mainland from European Union regulations while maintaining those rules for Northern Ireland. But for European negotiators, that was a problem for the United Kingdom to sort out.
The Brexit transition would commence on March 29, 2019, when the United Kingdom would leave the European Union but would ensue over a phased basis of two years. This process was thus dubbed "the long divorce."
By mid-2018, had forged a business-friendly strategy to enact the Brexit transition in a manner intended to yield the least amount of economic upheaval for the United Kingdom. The plan was formulated after years of discussion and advanced at a gathering of government at the country residence of the prime minister at Chequers.
The agreement won the support of most of Prime Minister May's government. But the Brexit strategy was in crisis following an address to parliament by Prime Minister May about the plan to exit the European Union.
At the center of the Chequers proposal was a strategy that would allow the U.K. to depart the European bloc while adhering to the Brexit commitments on borders, finances, and jurisprudence, but at the same time, retain a stable economy with as little turbulence as possible. Indeed, the plan was deemed to
The plan appeared to have raised the ire of Conservative members of parliament, spurring the resignations of at least three within hours of one another. Among them was Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
While the details of their objections were not fully aired, the belief was that the continuing influence by the European Union in areas like taxes, jurisprudence, and migration were regarded as dealbreakers of sorts. Indeed, Johnson soon released a letter detailing his objections, in which he explained that May's exit strategy would cause the United Kingdom to become a colony to the European Union. Of particular concern to Johnson were continued close trading ties between the two sides.
The general consensus was that either the prime minister would have to abandon her Brexit plan, or Conservative members of parliament would abandon her.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn cast the resignations of the cabinet ministers as escapees abandoning a "sinking ship," and declared: "The Chequers compromise took two years to reach and two days to unravel. We have a crisis in government... it is clear this government cannot secure a good deal for Britain."
By the end of August 2018, Prime Minister May was holding fast to her Chequers Brexit plan, which would enable a soft exit from the EU bloc, but without additional compromise to the EU, which was sure to enrage hardline eurosceptic factions at home.
In an opinion editorial in the Sunday Telegraph, the prime minister made clear that she would "not be pushed" into compromises on her Brexit proposal that were not in the "national interest." At the same time, she said she would not give into a call for a second "re-run" referendum on Brexit. She indicated that such a move would be a "gross betrayal of our democracy and trust".
In her piece, May stated, "We want to leave with a good deal and we are confident we can reach one."
As before, May was faced with objections from those within her own Tory ranks. Nick Boles - a former minister and Conservative who was part of the "Remain" faction that eschewed Brexit - said that he could no longer the Chequers exit strategy. He warned that the U.K was facing "the humiliation of a deal dictated by Brussels." Boles, instead, advocated for the U.K to become part of the European Economic Area for three years -- a time horizon lengthier and more flexible than the two-year exit schedule being advanced by may. His view was that more time was needed to negotiate a solid trade deal with the EU.
In late October 2018, the United Kingdom was bracing for mass protests as demonstrators demanded a new Brexit vote.
By November 2018, even as Prime Minister May was championing the Chequers Brexit plan, there was significant skepticism that it would have support in parliament. In fact, more than one cabinet minister was expressing doubts about it, with some warning that Prime Minister May's continued pursuit of the Chequers plan as a "self-harming" move by the head of government.
Writing a column in the Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson characterized the prime minister's plan as "a recipe for continued strife, both in the Tory Party and the country." Former cabinet minister John Whittingdale warned that May's viability as prime minister would be in doubt if parliament failed to endorse her plan. In an interview with BBC Radio, he said, "I think if the PM's Brexit plan doesn't get through parliament, I think it's quite difficult to see how the prime minister can continue because she has staked her credibility."
For her part, though, Prime Minister May appeared dogged in her pursuit of finalizing a Brexit plan prior to an impending summit, expected to be held in Brussels, Belgium later in November 2018. From the point of view of the prime minister, the deal "delivers what people voted for."
By Nov. 14, 2018, Prime Minister May won the backing of senior cabinet ministers for a draft deal to exit the European Union. Speaking outside 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's residence, May said, "The collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree to the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration." She added, "I firmly believe that the draft withdrawal agreement is the best that could be negotiated."
That hurdle cleared the way for the prime minister to try to procure approval from parliament.
To that end, Prime Minister May would need approximately 320 votes of 650-seat parliament where she commands a minority government supported by Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). But May's agreement included a provision that would prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. May's DUP allies were not likely to embrace this element.
May would not be helped by the opposition Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who described the prime minister's Brexit plan to be a "botched deal."
On Nov. 15, 2018, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab announced his resignation. Via the social media outlet, Twitter, Raab said, "Today, I have resigned as Brexit Secretary. I cannot in good conscience support the terms proposed for our deal with the EU. Here is my letter to the PM explaining my reasons, and my enduring respect for her."
Pensions Secretary Esther McVey also quit over the prime minister's Brexit agreement.
With Raab gone, the prime minister was apparently looking to Minister of Environment Michael Gove to make him the new Brexit secretary. But reports from BBC News indicated that Gove had rejected the offer because he would not be allowed to make changes to the deal.
It should be noted that junior health minister, Stephen Barclay, was soon appointed as the new Brexit secretary; however, the portfolio was downgraded.
Via Twitter, Barclay said, "We now need to keep up the momentum to finalize the Withdrawal Agreement and outline political declaration, and deliver a Brexit that works for the whole UK."
Despite rejecting the offer to become Brexit Secretary, Environment Minister Gove offered Prime Minister May some support by remaining in the cabinet and stating in no uncertain terms that he had confidence in the prime minister's leadership. In response to questions from journalists on this issue, he replied, "I absolutely do."
Trade minister Liam Fox also boosted Prime Minister May by making clear his support for her.
Support did not extend across party lines. Labour leader Corbyn told May, "The government simply cannot put to parliament this half-baked deal that both the Brexit secretary and his predecessor have rejected." Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Vince Cable, mused that the prime minister was "in denial," and took the opportunity to extrapolate that May had "rightly conceded that no Brexit is the real alternative."
Even in the face of criticism and a crumbling government, May remained defiant. From 10 Downing Street, she declared, "I believe with every fibre of my being that the course I have set out is the right one for our country and all our people." She also asserted: "Leadership is about taking the right decisions, not the easy ones."
In December 2018, Prime Minister May's Brexit deal was facing failure by a significant margin in parliament, with dozens of Conservative (Tory) members of parliament set to join the Welsh Plaid Cymru, Northern Ireland's DUP, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party, in voting down the deal.
With the various opposition parties were expected to reject the proposal, rejection by the DUP and several Tories would put a period to the Brexit deal. Their opposition was largely focused on the proposal for Northern Ireland to have a customs arrangement with the European Union if the two sides could not come to an agreement that would prevent the establishment of a visible Northern Ireland border. The prospect of new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, as well as the continued influence of the European Union were considered objectionable.
Regardless, with the failure of the Brexit deal vote looming, Prime Minister May canceled the vote in parliament scheduled for Dec. 11, 2018. But as before, May continued to champion the deal saying, "It is the right deal for Britain. I am determined to do all I can to secure the reassurances this House requires, to get this deal over the line and deliver for the British people."
Prime Minister May said she would return to Brussels to try to negotiate changes with the EU that might be more palatable to her party members at home. But it was difficult to see if that effort would be successful since European Council President Donald Tusk made clear that the other EU countries would not "renegotiate the deal."
At home, Prime Minister May's decision raised the ire of key opposition leaders. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, said May had "lost control of events" and urged her to stand down.
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable was even more excoriating, as he asserted, "With the fiasco today, the government has really lost all authority. I and my colleagues will fully support the leader of the opposition if he now proceeds to a no-confidence vote as duty surely calls."
But Corbyn and the Labour Party were not indicating they would immediately move forward by tabling a no-confidence vote against May and her government. Instead, a Labour Party spokesperson said: "We will put down a motion of no confidence when we judge it most likely to be successful."
With headwinds against her, Prime Minister May was subject to a leadership challenge from within her own Conservative Party. Her apparent failures on Brexit led to hardline Tories wanting to see her removed as party leader, and thus, as prime minister.
May, however, survived that challenge, winning the support of 200 Tories in the party's 317-seat conference within parliament; 117 voted against her. There was to be no new leadership challenge for another year, and as such, pending a confidence vote in the full parliament, May was set to remain in place as the United Kingdom's head of government for the immediate future.
Empowered by this show of support, she declared, "We now have to get on with the job of delivering Brexit for the British people and building a better future for this country."
May, nonetheless, emphasized that she intended to step down as prime minister prior to the next general election set for 2022. It was unclear if she could command a majority in parliament until that time. Indeed, a tough test for her would be the March 29, 2019 deadline by which she would require parliamentary ratification for a draft Brexit deal, with the actual exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union scheduled for March 29, 2019. To exit the EU without a clear agreement in place would risk severe disruption to the country.
PM May's Brexit deal crumbles leaving fears of a "no deal" hard landing for the UK
Prime Minister May's Brexit deal came to a head in mid-January 2019 as it faced ratification in parliament. The prime minister's Brexit strategy went down to crushing defeat with 432 members of parliament voting against her deal and only 202 members of parliament voting for it.
In fact, more than 100 of Conservatives (Tories) from her own part joined with the opposition to kill the deal. As such, they outperformed the record set in 1924 when a 166-vote defeat margin was set. In this way, the Brexit deal vote was the worst political defeat in modern British history.
Addressing parliament after the vote, May declared, "It is clear that the House does not support this deal, but tonight's vote tells us nothing about what it does support." She added that there was little indication if parliament wished "to honor the decision the British people took in a referendum parliament decided to hold."
May appeared to carry some notion that aspects of her Brexit deal could still form the basis of an accord with the European Union. But many within her own party, including Boris Johnson, emphatically disagreed, saying in no uncertain terms: "This deal is dead."
Meanwhile, there was action on the domestic political field. With an eye targeting a clearly weakened prime minister, opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called a vote of no confidence in May's government. But even after the humiliating defeat of her Brexit deal, all expectations were that May would manage to cobble together sufficient votes to stave off the detractors hungry to bring down her government. Indeed, to that end, May survived the no-confidence motion and was able to hold on as the head of government although the extent of her political power was expected to be limited.
May's call for working with opposition parties to craft a new agreement with Brussels was likewise being dismissed. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said,
"After two years of failed negotiations, the House of Commons has delivered its verdict on her Brexit deal, and that verdict is absolutely decisive. Her governing principle of delay and denial has reached the end of the line."
Given its failure to bring down May's government, the opposition Labour Party signaled that its next move would be to shift to lobbying for a new referendum.
With no clear sense of the path forward, the Brexit vote result raised anxieties about a tumultuous "no deal" exit from the European Union. A "no deal" exit would mean a hard landing and was certain to cause turmoil not only in the United Kingdom but quite possibly cause catastrophic shocks across the global marketplace.
U.K. PM May's wins mandate to return to Brexit negotiations but EU stands firm
With a deadline looming on March 29, 2019, for the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union, there was little hope that a replacement agreement could easily be forged. According to a spokesperson for the Labour Party, it was more likely that the United Kingdom would have to request that the European Union delay the departure date required under the Article 50 withdrawal notice. To that end, there were indications that Labour would back such a move.
Meanwhile there was an effort afoot to try to find some concurrence on a new vision forward, that would yet include a turbulence-free end to the Brexit drama. Michael Barnier, the European Union chief negotiator issued the following warning: “There appears to be a majority in the Commons to oppose a no-deal but opposing a no-deal will not stop a no-deal from happening at the end of March. To stop ‘no deal’, a positive majority for another solution will need to emerge.”
Prime Minister May's effort to find a soft landing was on life support as the House of Commons handed her a mandate to return to Brussels and try to renegotiate a Brexit accommodation that would satisfy her critics at home. Specifically, members of parliament voted in lat January 2019 to send May back Brussels to secure the removal of the Irish border "backstop" clause and replace it with
"alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border."
At issue here was the European Union's interest in preserving the Irish peace process, but which would also entail the maintenance of European bloc trade rules in order to continue to free flow of commerce across the Irish border. While this element might make good commercial sense, it was considered objectionable by nationalists and other pro-Brexit factions in the U.K.
Prime Minister May indicated that she would demand a change to the Irish border backstop clause. But May's interest in negotiating a new deal with the European Union was clearly messaging aimed at her domestic audience and not balanced by reality in Europe.
Philippe Lamberts, a memner of the European Parliament's six-member Brexit steering group, disparaged the U.K.'s stance on the backstop issue saying, "Saying you're against the backstop is like saying you're against bad weather. You might not like it, but you can't change it."
At the broader level, the European Union was signaling that there would be no further renegotiation. As well, the European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made clear that the vote in the United Kingdom's parliament served only to set the path for a "disorderly withdrawal." Juncker, added that preparations should be made for a no-deal Brexit.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney characterized the U.K. landscape as "an extraordinary situation when a prime minister and a government negotiates a deal and then goes back and during the ratification process votes against their own deal." In an interview with RTE, he offered this scathing commentary: "That's like saying in a negotiation, 'Well either you give me what I want or I'm jumping out of the window.'"
Donald Tusk, the chairman of European Union leaders, suggested the United Kingdom should reverse Brexit altogether. Via Twitter, he said, "If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?" Tusk later removed all doubt from the EU's position saying via Twitter, "My message to PM @theresa_may: The EU position is clear and consistent. The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation."
PM May tries to buy time; Labour likely to push back
In the aftermath of a meeting on Feb. 8, 2019 between United Kingdom (U.K.) Prime Minister Theresa May and European Union (EU) officials regarding an orderly exit from the European Union, there was no immediate breathrough forged.
EU Council President Donald Tusk said via Twitter, "Still no breakthrough in sight. Talks will continue." Prime Minister May appeared to bristle from this assessment but sources inside Tusk's circle said that he simply responded by noting, that the "truth hurts."
With the EU standing firm against changes to the Brexit schedule and plan, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May was still promising that she would negotiate a deal to please opponents of the controversial Northern Irish backstop by limiting its applicability. To be clear -- these opponents in parliament have rejected May's plan, believing that it would indefinitely link the U.K. to EU rules and thus limit the U.K.'s sovereignty. Others including unionists have been concerned that Northern Ireland would exist under a different system to the rest of the country.
For her part, with time running out on an orderly path forward, the only concrete promises Prime Minister May could offer were a series of non-binding votes in parliament through the end of February 2019 on possible Brexit alternatives.
The Labour Party was accusing May and the Tories of running out the clock and setting the country on a course towards a "no deal" exit. Sir Keir Starmer, Labour's shadow Brexit secretary, said Prime Minister May was "pretending to make progress" on the Irish backstop issue while her true intention was to wait until the last possible moment -- after the European Council summit in May 2019 and just before the scheduled Brexit in late March 2019 -- thus forcing members of parliament into a "binary choice" between May's deal or no deal. In an interview with The Sunday Times, keir said, "We can't allow that to happen." As such, Labour was pushing for a final "meaningful" vote on whether to approve or reject the Brexit by the end of February 2019.
Labour was joined by the Liberal Democrats in opposing such a course with that party's leader, Sir Vince Cable, saying that a delayed final vote on the Brexit deal was "worse than irresponsible."
It should be noted that Labour was also advancing its own Brexit plan, which provide for the U.K. to remain in a customs union with the EU. That plan, Labour has argued, would likely get support from a majority in parliament.
Following negotiations with the May on Feb. 8, 2019, EU officials were urging the prime minister to take advantage of the moves being made by the Labour opposition to end the impasse over the terms of the U.K.'s EU exit. The EU officials were signaling clearly that Labour's proposals for a permanent EU-U.K. customs union could be a way to end deadlock on the Irish border "backstop" controversy..
Action could also be taken in attempting to extend Article 50, thus delaying the exit from the EU and allowing for more time to reach an agreement.
But with time running out and with the EU not showing any sign of acquiescing to May's demands, it seemed increasingly possible that a "no-deal" Brexit, with no "soft landing" to ease the transition.
Denise Youngblood Coleman, PhD.
President and Editor in Chief
-- Feb. 11, 2019