May deal faces near-impossible hurdles

Possible concessions unlikely to appease Leave MPs

After European Union leaders approved on Sunday 25 November an agreement on Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc, the next step is a UK parliamentary vote scheduled for 11 December. If parliament votes in favour, the accord will move to the next step, a formal EU agreement according to treaty procedures. However, given what we know already, the deal seems unlikely to make it that far.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May would almost certainly try to counter a parliamentary rejection of the deal by returning with an amended version to avoid more dramatic alternatives. These could include a revolt in the Conservative party against her leadership, a general election or attempts to engineer a second referendum. Some have even raised the possibility of a ‘national government’, a coalition formed in times of crisis, last seen in peacetime Britain between 1931-40.

To stand any chance of success, an amended deal must overcome two hurdles. First, May must keep her cabinet united. In the light of the numerous resignations by senior cabinet ministers over the past several months, this appears improbable. Second, the EU must be forthcoming in offering something meaningful to appease the UK parliament. Again, what that could amount to is almost impossible to determine.

If May succeeds, formal EU agreement will be sought. A Yes vote in the European Council should not be difficult to achieve. This, however, would not be the end of the story, as ratification by the EU must include agreement in the European Parliament. It can be supposed to support the Yes camp as well, but will demand time, rejecting a rubber-stamp role. Whether the formalities can be finalised before the 29 March deadline depends on how quickly Britain can turn around a UK parliamentary rejection with a new text for the Council to vote on and submit to the European Parliament. Figuring in delays because of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, May has limited time.

The opposition Labour party, centre-left Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and probably Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (which entered a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Conservative government after May failed to secure a majority in the 2017 snap general election) seem determined to reject this iteration of the deal. The swing element is the 90 or so Conservative members of parliament who have announced their intention to vote against. If any are to justify switching sides, May must deliver meaningful concessions in any future version of the deal. Worries about the next general election and the Labour party’s potential to usurp the Conservative government complicate things further – the next election will be held at the latest in 2022, but could erupt next year if Brexit goes horribly wrong. In either circumstance, the handling of the UK’s exit from the EU will be the decisive issue.

Convincing Leave MPs to support May’s deal will be difficult. Many of them represent constituencies with robust anti-EU sentiment. If they change their position and throw their backing behind an amended, albeit substantially unchanged, version of May’s current deal, they will jeopardise their chances of being re-elected. The obstacle might be overcome with a considerable amount of ingenuity, skill and tact, all of which requires statecraft beyond what we have seen to this point.

As if this weren’t enough, the withdrawal deal – with or without amendments – opens the door to two possibly equally challenging sets of negotiations. These are the issues I will deal with in an article tomorrow.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and a former State Secretary at the Danish foreign ministry.

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