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EU-UK “Brexit”: Parliament says “No” a second time

  • March 12th, 2019
  • Posted by EU Australia

The House of Commons has again on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected the Withdrawal Agreement for Britain to leave the European Union.

Lee Duffield writes that the vote came after a week of the usual confusion and bumble over so-called “Brexit”, which produced a revised agreement – in the end not revised-enough to satisfy hold-out MPs.

The vote was NO 391, YES 242.

British officials had imparted on Sunday that the Prime Minister, Theresa May, would not be going to Brussels for a late bid at re-negotiating – then she did make a last-minute flight, to the European Parliament at Strasbourg, next day.

There she announced concessions had been obtained that would cut through some of the main sticking points, which had been blocking acceptance of her “Deal” — the EU Withdrawal Agreement — on separation from the European Union.


That Withdrawal Agreement committed Britain to pay €39-billion (A$62.09-billion), to clear up long-term commitments, and then would set it up for an eventual disconnection – once they worked through a settlement on the land border in Northern Ireland.

The arrangement called the “Irish back-stop” has been: to continue trading with Europe under a customs union, meaning there would be no need for a controlled foreign border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, an EU member. On the other hand the customs union arrangement would prevent a complete break and frustrate British legislators wanting to get into immediate direct trade talks with countries like Australia, China and the United States. They’ve been angered also that the back-stop could not be ended without the concurrence of the other side – seen as still locking the UK into a half-way EU membership.


This week May declared that the European Union had agreed to long-demanded legally binding assurances that the Irish back-stop would be wound up on a definite time-line. There’d be arbitration on disputes, mitigating British fears that the Europeans could refuse to end the agreement and keep it going indefinitely.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, said that the changes were additional to the previously settled agreement but that there could be no further concessions on the content. It is something he has said before – now more urgent given the timetable.

There was an immediate knock-back for the British government, however, from within its own ranks. The Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, had to deliver a legal opinion before the new vote in the Commons. In it, he said the revised deal, although it had improved Britain’s options for getting out of the back-stop, still could not guarantee it if “intractable differences” came up.


The previous day’s work, ending very late during a cold night at Strasbourg, had given the Prime Minister some ammunition for her efforts to get her EU agreement through the House of Commons, early on Wednesday Australian time.

She had been hoping for a reversal of the vote taken on 15 January where the proposition was steamrollered out of consideration, by 432 votes to 202. It would have depended on Members of the governing Conservative Party who’d said no before, changing over to give their support.  It would have been a great victory, clearing the way to British secession from the EU by the set date, 29 March – an “Article 50” separation under EU treaties.


But they didn’t.

The conservative Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland which provides the minority government with a working majority remained unsatisfied and voted “no”. The so-called European Research Group further to the right of Theresa May also said “no” once again. With the Prime Minister’s head on the political block they see a chance of getting control of the Conservative Party and driving for a “harder” way out. This is the core of the “leavers” lobby which for decades now has been talking about an “independent Britain” able to ditch European laws on the environment, labour standards and financial or economic regulation – setting off a “free market” reaction.

The Opposition Labour Party said “no” declaring very little was added in the eleventh-hour meetings at Strasbourg. On the main document “not one single change” had been achieved. It wants a new “people’s vote”, whether a General Election or a referendum on the Withdrawal Agreement, now that its terms are known. The party has been edging towards a “remain” position, recognising that staying within the EU might be the best deal possible for Britain to obtain. Its slow shift has been in step with moves in public opinion since the “Brexit” referendum in 2016, then 51.9% in favour of leaving, more recently down to 47% or 46%.


The Politico news service has been monitoring the developments in the European Union and at Westminster, setting out the schedule of votes for this week (Brexit Endgame, 11.3.19) (London dates):

TUESDAY — VOTE I:  The UK House of Commons on Tuesday will vote, again, on May’s agreement with the EU. Should the Ayes have it, a deal-based Brexit will happen as planned on March 29, the UK and the EU will move to negotiating a trade agreement — and assuming they manage that monumental task, the Irish backstop will never be triggered and the two will live happily ever … Except life isn’t quite that easy …

(That move has now failed and the government has declared it will go to Vote II).

WEDNESDAY — VOTE II: If the Nays prevail Tuesday, MPs will a day later vote on whether they want a no-deal Brexit. There are plenty who do indeed want that to happen … because that will at least mean leaving the EU on March 29.

THURSDAY — VOTE III: If the Dealists prevail, on Thursday the Commons will vote on whether to force the government’s hand and make the UK ask for a short and limited extension of the Article 50 negotiating period. That seems reasonable if we ever get to that point, a mere fortnight before Brexit Day. But reason is one thing and politicking another one.

The news service makes some logical conclusions: if Prime Minister May’s new deals should be voted down, and Vote II, “no deal” also rejected, they would be back to where they were at the beginning of the week. Should they go for Vote III asking for extra time, it would be the same, but with less time pressure – for a while. (The EU says it would have to consult its Treaties to see how much time might be allowed).


Once more the observation has to be made that the United Kingdom, politicians and public together, have encountered a reality that leaving Europe was not just theirs to decide on. That applies especially in England, though not so much to regions which voted for “remain” – London, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The EU is a level of government, something like the federal government of America, Canada or Australia. The “Brits” have been enmeshed in its law-making and its economy since 1972 and might all have realised that the “other side” also had interests – they could not just set their own terms.

The referendum process they went through in 2016 was a time of passion, setting off pent-up feelings about immigration and a fixed cunning intent to “change the system” towards more corporatism and a neo-liberal free-for-all. Sobering-up time has arrived and the options have been democratically thrashed-out in the parliament and country. The UK might now go to some informed and concerted decision-making to get an outcome, whether in the present parliament, through an election or a second referendum on Europe.


Pictures: screenshots BBC, Politico

See also Independent Australia