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Brexit Goes to the Brink



Less than two months away from the prospect of crashing out of the European Union (EU) in a “no deal Brexit,” Britain is about to test the proposition that the only way to get people to do something they know is bad for them is to offer them a choice between that option and something far worse.

As made clear by top EU officials in recent days, there is no time for another Brexit referendum or another snap election, and no likelihood of the UK Parliament overriding the March 2017 triggering of Article 50, the formal process of withdrawing from the EU.[1] Two options remain on the table: a binary choice between “a deal” and “no deal,” with the UK automatically leaving the EU on March 30 if there is no deal. Prime Minister Theresa May’s strategy of running down the clock while eliminating alternatives to her own proposal guarantees her the political legacy of taking the UK out of the EU (and not much else).

The main question for Brexit therefore is what kind of deal is put before members of parliament (MPs) as the alternative to “no deal.” The EU-27 may approve a short extension of Article 50 to avoid conflicting with the European elections in late May, but it may make this extension conditional on the UK Parliament actually approving a Brexit deal first.

Prime Minister May has declared support for the Brady Amendment[2] in Westminster, indicating that she will try to get the EU-27 to renegotiate the “Irish backstop” in order to secure the support of her own Conservative backbenchers for her deal with the EU-27. Conservative backbenchers abhor the fact that the backstop potentially significantly restricts the UK’s ability to conduct its own trade policy after Brexit. But EU-27 members have refused to renegotiate the issue of an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The uncompromising EU-27 stance reflects its understanding that Tory Brexiteers will never be satisfied with anything the EU can offer the British minister, and the cold (and surely correct) calculation that the UK will lose even more negotiating leverage in an actual “no deal Brexit,” ensuring that London would seek a return to negotiated compromise, and a “no deal Brexit” hence only lasts a few weeks. At least not long enough for actual border infrastructure to be erected on the Irish border.

Lacking support from Conservative (and the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP) Brexiteers for her deal, May will have to rely on defections from Labour MPs to secure a parliamentary majority for her version of the deal. In fact she has begun issuing political bribes to Labour MPs in the form of promises to protect existing EU worker rights in the UK after Brexit and is offering more government cash to select Labour constituencies to get their support. She can probably expect 25 to 30 Labour MPs to support her, but the vast majority of Labour MPs support remaining in the EU and represent constituencies that voted to remain in the referendum. This group of MPs has an incentive to allow a disastrous “no deal Brexit” to take effect, damaging Conservative prospects in the next election. If May’s deal is offered as the only alternative to a “no deal Brexit,” the risks of the UK tumbling out of the EU on March 30 without a deal would rise.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has offered May support for a much softer Brexit, which includes permanent UK participation in the EU customs union and a close relationship with the internal market. Labour Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, has also indicated that Labour would seek the same labor-mobility scheme as Switzerland[3] has negotiated in order to secure access to the EU’s internal market. The question is then whether Corbyn would have the personal interest in and political capacity to lure pro-EU Conservative MPs to his softer version of Brexit.

Recent polling implies that many pro-EU Labour voters would desert Corbyn in a post-Brexit election, appalled by his inactivity and unwillingness to block the UK’s departure from the EU. A looming electoral disaster for Corbyn upends his strategy of letting Conservatives take the sole political responsibility for that outcome, delivering Labour the parliamentary majority he craves.[4] Corbyn’s best plan B would be to secure the softest possible Brexit so that most British voters wouldn’t really notice any disruption in their daily lives.

Yet, the UK Parliament functions in a way that gives May leverage to control what legislation MPs must consider. She might thus be able to deny MPs the opportunity to vote on a softer Corbyn-made Brexit.

With time running out, moderate Tory MPs should show their true colors, resign and vote for a softer UK departure rather than a “no deal” disaster. The prime minister still must choose between either holding her party together or compromising still further, heeding her party’s desire to avoid going down the disastrous path of “no deal.”


1. The European Court of Justice granted the UK Parliament this unilateral option in late 2018, though under the condition that an annulment of Article 50 would be permanent in nature and that the UK would not in that case be able to “return to Brexit” at a later stage.

2. The Brady Amendment, backed by a majority of the UK Parliament, stated that the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU-27 would be acceptable only if major changes were made to the so-called Irish backstop put in the agreement to ensure that no border could ever reemerge in Northern Ireland.

3. The Swiss solution entails that free movement of labor continues, but that new Swiss job postings must initially be posted only by the national Swiss labor office portal to give local workers an (illusionary) advance in seeking these jobs. They also include the requirement for foreign firms to notify Swiss authorities in advance of work carried out in Switzerland to ensure that foreign workers on wages lower than Swiss levels are not brought in.

4. Conversely, Labour’s problems with Remain voters make it more probable that the Tories would seek an early election shortly after Brexit has taken place.

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