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Brexit and Theresa May: perspectives from London

Three Questions to Georgina Wright

INTERVIEW - 14 December 2018

The Brexit imbroglio does not seem to be nearing an end. This week has been eventful for Theresa May: on Monday 10th she rescheduled the vote of the deal by the House of Commons, on Wednesday 12th she faced a vote of no confidence within her own party and on Thursday she attended the EU Council in Brussels. Georgina Wright, research associate at Chatham House until December 2018, enlightens us on the current political situation in the United Kingdom (UK) and on the implications it may have on the Brexit deal.

Seen from France, the political situation in the UK seems rather complicated. Could you share with us your understanding of what is going on?

The UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) has always been an incredibly divisive issue, which was perhaps most accurately reflected in the June 2016 referendum which saw Leave win by a slim majority of 52%.

There is no consensus on what the UK wants and this is the challenge.

There is no consensus on what the UK wants and this is the challenge. For months, the government itself was divided on the kind of relationship the UK wanted with the EU. So whatever deal the UK struck with the EU was never going to satisfy everyone.

But what became clear last week was that the House of Commons was likely to reject the withdrawal agreement, which is why Theresa May decided to reschedule the vote. She was hoping that more reassurances from the EU Council this week would convince enough MPs to support her deal.

But Theresa May is running out of time. The UK still needs to pass a withdrawal agreement if it is to avoid crashing out of the EU in March 2019 with no deal.

In which situation does Theresa May find herself today? Do you think she will be able to get a favourable vote from the House of Commons on the Brexit deal?

From a leadership perspective, she is safe, for now.

Theresa May faced a vote of no confidence within her Party this week as more than 48 Conservative MPs felt that she was no longer the right leader for the Party and the Government. She won the vote, which means that members of her party cannot challenge her for another year (although Labour could still call for a vote of no confidence).

From a Brexit perspective, the situation is more precarious.

One of the reasons she cancelled the parliamentary vote on the withdrawal agreement was that she was hoping to gain more assurances from the EU Council, for example on the Irish backstop. The backstop acts as an insurance policy: if no option (be that technological or legal) is found by the end of trade talks with the EU to prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, then the backstop would come into force.

From a leadership perspective, she is safe, for now. [...] From a Brexit perspective, the situation is more precarious.

This would essentially keep the whole of the UK in a customs arrangement with the EU but subject Northern Ireland to more EU rules than the rest of the UK. This has outraged many MPs who believe this undermines the constitutional integrity of the UK.

But her strategy of reassurance is unlikely to work. Different MPs oppose the withdrawal deal for different reasons. Some believe opposing the deal would increase the chances of a second referendum, others that it would lead to a general election. Some favour no deal. It is very unclear how Theresa May will proceed.

In light of this situation, is the EU's position likely to change?

Not really. 

Their position has been clear all along: the withdrawal agreement on the table is the outcome of lengthy, complex and slightly tedious negotiations. Both sides compromised and like Theresa May, Member States believe that the deal on the table is the best and only one possible.

Both sides compromised and like Theresa May, Member States believe that the deal on the table is the best and only one possible.

Of course, the EU wants a deal and understands the pressures Theresa May faces at home, so they might be open to small semantic changes. But this would require the UK to be clear on the changes it wants and make sure that these changes can actually work in practice. Theresa May would also need to convince them that these changes will get the deal through the UK Parliament.

EU Member States will oppose any substantial changes as this could open the door to other Member States like Spain or France to demand further concessions in the withdrawal agreement. Upsetting the balance could risk unravelling the deal all together.

Finally, it is worth remembering that we are still on the terms of the UK’s exit. Talks about the future trade and security partnership have not started yet. Those negotiations (providing we get there) will be a lot more complicated than those we have seen up to now.

 

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