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Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy

Wason Center

March 26, 2019

Theresa May and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Brexit Exit

International / Issue

Sign post with EU and Brexit markers

Amid the chaos of American government and politics right now, the United Kingdom is also entrenched in conflict as tensions continue to rise over the stalled Brexit withdrawal. While the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union was scheduled to take place on March 29, two failed attempts at passing a divorce agreement through Parliament have prompted May to request an extension of their original departure date. As one can imagine, May’s request incited anger and frustration from many members of Parliament as negotiations near their second year. A look back at the roots of Brexit, history of negotiations, and voter sentiments will show us how the UK arrived at its current political climate and the possible implications that Brexit could have for the future.

On June 23, 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union, 51.9 to 48.1 percent. The referendum turnout was 71.8 percent, with more than 30 million people voting in the referendum. Across the UK, Leave votes were primarily concentrated in rural, lower-income areas, while Remain votes showed higher concentration in cities, such as London, as well as Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Brexit vote exposed anxieties about globalization, increased income inequality, and rising euroskepticism within the UK. Brexit supporters emphasized concerns over immigration and border control to create a populist resistance against the UK and European political elites. They argued that increased immigration from neighboring EU countries was driving down wages and negatively affecting the ability of UK citizens to attain jobs. Furthermore, Brexit campaigners argued that the EU was infringing on the UK’s national sovereignty. The rhetoric around the Leave campaign highlighted the high costs of EU membership, a supposed increased rate of crime due to EU immigrants, as well as a loss of control in terms of dictating trade negotiations.

Supporters of the Remain campaign also employed tactics that played on economic fear, arguing that the UK received lower prices on consumer goods due to their membership in the EU which was subject to increased per the UK’s exit from the EU. Additionally, the Remain campaign linked their side to the opinions of other world leaders that supported the UK’s membership in the EU, posting graphics of popular world leaders who supported the Remain side and having influential politicians give speeches that utilized specific words or phrases from the Remain campaign.

The 2016 vote was just the start of the Brexit process. UK Prime Minister and Conservative Party member, David Cameron, resigned from his position following the surprise result of the referendum and was replaced by fellow Conservative Party member, Theresa May, who triggered the two-year process to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU. Since then, May has led discussions with Parliament and EU officials over a wide array of areas, including immigration regulations, financial services, safety standards, and more.

May’s Brexit proposal consisted of a 585-page withdrawal agreement that outlined a number of critical issues in the Brexit process. First, it addressed how much money the UK would owe the EU and what would happen to UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU, as well as EU citizens living in the UK. It also proposed a method for avoiding the return of a physical border in Northern Ireland. The document then went on to provide a 26-page statement on the future relations between the UK and EU, addressing issues such as trade, defense, and security. The withdrawal agreement also called for a 21-month transition period until December 21, 2020, in order to give the EU and the UK time to adjust to their new relationship.

One of the biggest contentions against May’s agreement was that it allowed for a “no-deal Brexit” to occur, meaning that the exit date, March 29, could come and the UK would leave the EU without any formal withdrawal agreement. Both the UK and EU ran simulations for what a no-deal Brexit would look like and the effects are catastrophic, as there would be no specific arrangements surrounding immigrant statuses, trade agreements, border checks and more. Additionally, observers such as the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development have explained that a no-deal Brexit would deliver a “body blow” to the UK economy and likely send it into a recession.

May scheduled the first vote for her deal on January 15, 2019, but was met with a resounding defeat in Parliament, losing 432 to 202 – the largest defeat in Parliamentary history. Consequently, leaders of the European Commission issued a stern response, saying, “We regret the outcome of the vote, and urge the U.K. government to clarify its intentions with respect to its next steps as soon as possible.”

Following the rejection of May’s plan, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour party, immediately called for a vote of no-confidence in May’s administration, which allowed the House of Commons to voice their opinion on if they felt that May was fit to continue leading negotiations. However, on January 16, 2019, May survived the vote of no-confidence 325 to 306.

On March 12, 2019, May introduced her withdrawal agreement for a second time and lost again by 149 votes. With just seventeen days from the formal Brexit date, the chances of reaching a consensus on a withdrawal agreement seemed very bleak to many political officials.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn argued that the Prime Minister should call a general election, saying “The government has been defeated again by an enormous majority and it must accept its deal is clearly dead and does not have the support of this House.”

On Twitter, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said, “The EU has done everything it can to help get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line. The impasse can only be solved in the UK. Our ‘no-deal’ preparations are now more important than ever before.”

A spokesperson for Donald Tusk, the European Council president, said, “With only 17 days left to 29 March, today’s vote has significantly increased the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit” and that it was “difficult to see what more we can do.”

After losing the vote in Parliament on the second withdrawal agreement, May asked the EU on March 20, 2019, for an extension until June 30 to create and pass a new withdrawal agreement. Per Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, both sides have exactly two years to agree on the terms of the split. Since May triggered Brexit negotiations on March 29, 2017, both sides technically had until March 29, 2019, to reach an agreement. However, this can stipulation can be altered if all 27 member states of the EU give permission. EU leaders granted May’s request for a postponed departure date but rejected her request for a three-month delay. Instead, two new dates have been agreed upon – the first being May 22. This will be the official date for UK departure if May is able to pass her third withdrawal agreement, set to be presented before the House of Commons during at the end of March. However, there appears to be insufficient support for May’s third withdrawal agreement at the moment.

During her announcement of an extension, May articulated that she is “not prepared to delay Brexit any further than June 30,” implying the possibility of her stepping down before allowing a longer stall in negotiations.

However, it appears that May is already under intense pressure to resign from some Conservative Party members. Additionally, many political commentators have been quick to point out the “fragile” nature of her leadership position right now, arguing that she does not have the momentum to push any kind of deal through Parliament. Members of Parliament have explored alternatives to May’s plan, filling out ballots to test the support amongst members for different ideas in regards to the withdrawal agreement.

The risk of a messy break of the UK from the EU could have a catastrophic impact on the European and US economies, greatly affecting sectors, such as trade, finance, immigration. As the future of the UK and EU relations continues to play out, US officials wait close by to determine the next steps. As stated by Woody Johnson, United States Ambassador to the UK, Britain’s relationship with the United States is extremely important and will continue to prosper as Britain leaves the European Union. Johnson articulated, “In any situation, I know that our two countries have to be together in this free world. There’s a lot of danger out there, so our relationship is more important now than ever whatever happens with Brexit.”

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