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'We Are Running Out Of Time': What's Next For Brexit

A protester holds a banner in London, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (Frank Augstein/AP)
A protester holds a banner in London, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (Frank Augstein/AP)

The British Parliament delivered a crushing, historic defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit plan yesterday, 432-202.

Where are we today? While May survived a close no-confidence vote in the House of Commons, the fate of Brexit is still quite uncertain. The U.K. faces a March 29th deadline, when it can either have an orderly exit from the European Union, or a disastrous one — or, something else entirely.

Britain in chaos — what does it mean for its people, Europe and the U.S.?

On Point spoke with John Peet, political and Brexit editor for The Economist, David Herszenhorn, chief Brussels correspondent for Politico Europe, and Amanda Sloat, senior fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings.

Interview Highlights

On what sunk the deal

John Peet: "One lot of MPs would like to keep most of the benefits now but not pay any of the costs, including any of the money that the European Union thinks they're owed. Another lot just is very concerned about sovereignty, particularly related to Northern Ireland. I think what happened in the last few months was that the argument about the Irish border became a general proxy for these kinds of views. And what many MPs were arguing about, including the Members of Parliament for the Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, was that in order to avoid any border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Theresa May had agreed with the European Union that Britain would stay in a customs union and that Northern Ireland would stay very strongly linked to all of the rules and regulations of the European Union. And the Unionists in Northern Ireland objected that that might mean they were being differently treated from the rest of the U.K., and that's a very sensitive issue given the history of the troubles in Northern Ireland. And it took with it a lot of conservatives who were also concerned about any threat to the union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That standoff, I think, led to many people saying, 'We're not going to accept a deal at all.' "

"The U.K. as a country is so thoroughly divided, it doesn't know what it wants."

David Herszenhorn

On what could possibly change to rally enough MPs to vote for a Brexit deal

Peet: "It would be very difficult. It has put the U.K. in a difficult position. Brussels is familiar with what they like to call 'ratification difficulties,' that's when you agree a treaty with a government and then some countries have difficulty ratifying it. But the process of getting out of those difficulties often take many months. And in this particular case, with the defeat of this side, it's very difficult to see how the European Union can make changes to the deal that they agreed, the draft treaty they agreed to, on the sort of scale that would win support among MPs. We are running out of time and it's very difficult to see a settlement of the issue before the 29th of March."

On reaction from the EU

David Herszenhorn: "The reaction from the EU, actually, had come even before this vote. They knew what was coming, and they've seen, over the past two years, this exact same pattern, which is the U.K. as a country is so thoroughly divided, it doesn't know what it wants. And this is the problem in the Parliament. Legislators don't vote far from what their voters want them to do, and in this case, they don't know what to vote for because the country is so thoroughly divided and confused about what sort of future it wants upon leaving the European Union, or if it wants to leave the European Union.

"I think most pollsters think that a referendum held today would probably, narrowly, go the other way."

John Peet

"The best deal is only a deal that can be ratified and will accomplish the EU's goals, which are to prevent an economic catastrophe, to prevent this no-deal scenario. But Theresa May cannot just come back to Brussels having suffered this defeat. What they're looking for now is for her to make good on some things she's said in those remarks, where she promised, upon surviving this vote of no-confidence, to open up the dialogue with all of the parties, including her opposition in the Labour Party, something she has not done throughout this process. This was a big signal for EU 27 leaders back at their summit in December. They're all veterans of legislative battles in their home capitals. And they looked at this situation and they realized that the European Commission seemed to have a better line of communication open to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, than Theresa May did. This would be the Republicans not talking to Democrats, and everybody realizes, 'Hey, there's no way you're going to cobble together the vote on such a complicated thing if these two parties are not talking to each other.' She's promised to do that. The view in Brussels is, 'Hey, work it out over there. Have a dialogue amongst yourselves, then come back to Brussels and let us know what it is we can do for you.' They're willing to extend that March 29th deadline, they've signaled that. But not for an open-ended purpose."

On the possibility of a second referendum

Peet: "I think it is much more possible today than it was a year ago. I don't think popular sentiment is changing quite as fast as some enthusiasts believe, but, as time passes, it's 2 1/2 years since the referendum, more young people come onto the voter register, I think most pollsters think that a referendum held today would probably, narrowly, go the other way. And I think the fact that Parliament seems unable to agree on any form of Brexit is helping to boost those who think maybe we should have another look at this issue. I would not say that that is the most likely outcome, but I think it is more plausible than it was."

"There certainly should be a hope in the U.S. that the U.K. is able to resolve this quickly."

Amanda Sloat

On the potential loss of civic engagement evidenced by Brexit, and comparisons to the U.S.

Amanda Sloat: "I think there is an argument on both sides, that a lack of full understanding of the complexities of what Brexit actually entailed, and in the U.S. a lack of some civic education in schools about how policy processes work has contributed to some of the confusion in both countries. I think that on both sides, one of the benefits coming out of this is, certainly in the U.K., people have become a lot more aware of the European Union, what U.K. membership in the EU actually entails, and one of the silver linings I think we're seeing in the United States in response to a of the chaos that we've had recently is people becoming much more civically engaged."

On lessons that we in the U.S. should consider as we watch what happens in the U.K.

Sloat: "There certainly should be a hope in the U.S. that the U.K. is able to resolve this quickly. My concern is that this is going to continue to be a years' long process. Even if there is a Brexit deal agreed, it's going to be time consuming for the U.K. to resolve its future relationship with the European Union. If there is a no-deal Brexit, that's going to be very messy and consume a lot of the bandwith in London. I think both of our countries are really mired in domestic politics. We have incredibly divide societies and polarized populations, and I think this is doing a disservice to the track record that both of our countries have had, to be a force for good and able to operate effectively on the global scale. Hopefully both governments are able to continue to find ways to move past these challenges."

Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.

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