News analysis

British Parliament still set to reject Brexit deal

The 599 page-long EU withdrawal agreement concluded in November between Britain and the bloc provides for a transition period to last until the end of 2020 during which Britain will abide by all EU rules yet lose membership in European institutions. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON - The British Parliament has resumed debating Prime Minister Theresa May's plan for her country's withdrawal from the European Union, nearly a month after she postponed a crunch vote on her proposal.

But although the British leader has given Parliament no less than five debating days on the subject and is actively engaged in political arm-twisting, the odds still are that, when the Brexit deal - as the process of Britain separation from the EU is now universally known - is finally put to the vote in the House of Commons in London next Tuesday (Jan 15), it would be rejected.

The 599 page-long EU withdrawal agreement concluded in November between Britain and the bloc guarantees the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and British expats living on the continent, provides for a transition period to last until the end of 2020 during which Britain will abide by all EU rules yet lose membership in European institutions, and specifies the terms of the "divorce" bill, which amounts to £39 billion (S$67.5 billion).

But neither the Brexit deal nor the accompanying declaration on future trade and security relations between Britain and the EU can come into force unless these are approved by the British Parliament, where just about the only consensus among MPs is that they don't like what's on offer.

Some lawmakers simply detest the whole concept of Brexit, and would vote down any proposal, while others hate the idea of paying anything to an organisation they wish to leave.

But the key debate is over the hazy nature of the Brexit conditions, and particularly over a provision in the Brexit deal entitled the "Irish backstop", under which no final separation between the EU and the UK will take place until the thorny question of the trading status of Northern Ireland, a province which belongs to Britain, is resolved to the full satisfaction of the Irish Republic, which controls most of the island of Ireland, an EU member.

Some MPs fear this could keep Britain involved in interminable negotiations with the EU, while others anticipate that the Irish negotiations could create a permanent divide between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, and unleash the break-up of the UK.

To make matters worse, Mrs May's government lacks an overall parliamentary majority and relies on the votes of 10 Northern Irish MPs, all of whom oppose her Brexit deal.

Furthermore, party discipline in the House of Commons or Parliament has broken down; both the ruling Conservative and the main opposition Labour party are divided on all these issues.

Mrs May planned to use the Christmas break to persuade Brussels to make further concessions and convince MPs that the only alternative to her plan is a Brexit with no deal whatsoever, which most analysts agree would be disastrous for the British economy but something which would become inevitable if no arrangement is in place by March 29, when Britain's membership in the EU automatically expires.

But, in the early hours of Wednesday (Jan 9), rebel MPs from both sides of Parliament inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Prime Minister by approving - with a majority of 303 to 296 - a Bill forcing Mrs May to ask for explicit parliamentary approval to leave the EU without a deal before it can use certain powers relating to taxation law.

In effect, this means that Prime Minister May cannot threaten to leave the EU without a deal, but is still no nearer getting approval for her Brexit arrangement; a more tangled political situation could have hardly been invented.

In an effort to relieve the logjam, Mrs May's negotiators are trying to extract from the EU a promise that the Irish "backstop" won't be used, or won't be effective beyond a certain date; that, the British premier hopes, could calm down rebel MPs.

The EU Commission, the union's executive body, may be willing to consider giving such a reassurance, but only if it can be sure that this would be the end of the haggling, and that the British Parliament would approve the deal.

However, Mrs May can give no such guarantee. So, at least for the moment "there are no negotiations, because all we have on the table is an agreement we already consider as completed", points out EU Commission chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas.

The consensus in London is that the British government will lose the key vote next Tuesday, although nobody knows what would follow next. The Prime Minister could simply play for time, and resubmit the same deal for further discussion. Or she may opt for a referendum, asking the public what it wants.

Either way, it is clear that time is running out to pass the literally hundreds of pieces of legislation required for Brexit. So an extension to the current negotiations with the EU is more or less inevitable.

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