The UK voted in favour of leaving the European Union (EU) in a June 2016 referendum – nearly 3 years ago with the exit date set for 29 March 2019. However, on 13 March, UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s EU withdrawal deal was rejected for a second time by an overwhelming majority of British MPs. Then, on Thursday (21 March), the EU’s 27 other member states agreed to grant the UK’s request for a concession, but provided less time than May had initially sought. UK membership of the EU will now be extended to 22 May, if British MPs approve the withdrawal deal negotiated with the EU. The longer timeframe is to allow MPs time to pass the necessary accompanying legislation. If MPs reject the agreement (for a third time), the UK’s stay in the EU will only be extended to 12 April at which point the UK will have to provide a plan for a fresh approach to the Brexit talks, or “indicate a way forward”. On Monday, May admitted that she did not yet have the majority votes needed to try for a third time this week on the withdrawal agreement. This has seen EU lawmakers this week call on British MPs to either back an alternative Brexit plan or to leave the EU without a deal.
What happens next? No-one knows for certain, but British MPs voted on Monday to clear the House of Commons timetable from 2PM on Wednesday (27 March), to allow for a debate on alternatives to May’s Brexit deal. These options (around half a dozen which are likely to range from cancelling Brexit to leaving the EU without a deal) will be chosen by Speaker John Bercow from MP proposals and will likely also cover various future trading arrangements with the EU. At 7PM, MPs will vote on these alternative Brexit options in series of ‘indicative votes’ (it is unclear whether MPs will be free to vote as they wish or will take orders from their respective party leaders), and at 7:30PM MPs will debate legislation to change the Brexit date in UK law. Later this evening, Bercow will announce the result of the vote on Brexit options. However, the BBC reports that any votes would not be legally binding on the government and, while May has promised to engage “constructively”, she has also said that she could still hold a third vote on her withdrawal deal this week, adding that while government would take the outcome of an indicative vote into account, it would not be bound by it.
Nevertheless, 12 April is an immovable deadline because Parliament must pass relevant legislation to allow the UK to hold elections to the European Parliament by 11 April. Without membership of the European Parliament, the UK cannot remain an EU member. Just as there is no majority for putting the Brexit question back to the people in the House of Commons, there is also not a majority for holding European parliamentary elections, which would keep the possibility of a second Brexit referendum alive.Here we note that the UK government has thus far rejected the demand from 5.8mn-plus signatories to revoke Article 50 (the formal mechanism by which Britain kicked off the Brexit process), stating that it would not “honour the result of the 2016 referendum” by doing so. Since the petition passed the 100,000-signature threshold (which is required to ensure Parliamentary time), MPs will still debate the petition on Monday (1 April).