LONDON — What now?
Now that European leaders have agreed to a short postponement of Brexit, as Britain’s scheduled withdrawal from the European Union is known, what happens next?
Another vote in the British Parliament on some version of Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan? A short delay and a cliff-edge Brexit? A slightly longer delay and a victory for the prime minister? A very long delay and a softer from of Brexit? Another vote of confidence on Mrs. May? An upheaval within one or both major political parties? Early elections? Another referendum? No Brexit?
The answers are: maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe and maybe. More nuanced responses range from “probably” to “probably not, but you never know,” with a liberal sprinkling of “no one has a clue.”
The process leaving the European Union continues to defy easy prediction, despite the fast-approaching prospect of an abrupt, chaotic exit for Britain that might be an economic disaster.
So here is the situation Mrs. May and her nation find themselves in, as well as the possible routes ahead.
What just happened in Brussels?
The one certain result of the meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels on Thursday is that Brexit will not take effect on March 29, the date that was set two years ago.
Mrs. May negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the European Union, but Parliament has rejected that deal twice, each time by very wide margins. And last week it voted against leaving without any agreement in place — the “no-deal” or “cliff-edge” scenario — and told Mrs. May to ask for a postponement.
So after insisting for almost two years that Brexit would go ahead on March 29, Mrs. May gave in and requested an extension until the end of June.
But the European Union refused to give her that much time, declaring instead that the British Parliament must decide what it wants to do by April 12.
If lawmakers somehow approve Mrs. May’s deal by then, the exit date would become May 22, to give them time to pass all the additional legislation it would require.
If not, European leaders said, Britain’s choices would be a cliff-edge Brexit on April 12, no Brexit at all or a much longer delay, possibly two years. Each of those options is opposed by most of Parliament, as is the deal on the table.
What will Parliament do now?
On Monday, lawmakers could take the first big step toward wresting control of Brexit policy away from Mrs. May.
They are scheduled to vote on proposed amendments to her plan, including one that would give Parliament a rapid-fire series of votes on specific alternatives to the plan. A similar proposal was defeated last week, but barely.
For Parliament to decide to weigh in like that might not have much practical effect, because the votes would not be binding on the government. But it would be an enormous political blow to the prime minister, who is on increasingly shaky ground.
Mrs. May wants to try a third time, possibly next week, to get her plan through Parliament. But to succeed, she would have to change the minds of about 70 lawmakers who have already voted against it twice.
The speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, ruled this week that she cannot have another vote on the same proposal unless she offers something new. The European Union has insisted that it is done negotiating, and there will be no further changes. The new dates might count as enough of a difference, but Mr. Bercow has yet to confirm this.
British lawmakers have stated repeatedly what they don’t want, but have given no reason to believe that they can agree on what they do want. Some have demanded a more complete break with the bloc than Mrs. May proposes. Others would prefer a withdrawal that keeps Britain closely tied to Europe, and a sizable faction is holding out for no Brexit at all.
The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, could try to bring down the government by a vote of no confidence. He forced such a vote in January and lost, but Mrs. May’s standing has only worsened since then.
Why don’t they just go ahead with Brexit?
The problem is that the British government cannot say what sort of relationship it wishes to have with the European Union once Britain leaves the bloc.
Mrs. May’s deal would mostly keep Britain tied to European customs and trade rules until the end of 2020, while the two sides work out long-term arrangements.
If Brexit were to take place without an agreement, then all products going between Britain and the bloc would suddenly become subject to tariffs and quality checks, which would be cumbersome and time consuming.
Britain does not have the physical infrastructure or bureaucracy to manage such checks, nor do some of its European trading partners. The British government has said it will wave trucks through the border, at least for the first several months, but the European Union will not. So trade would slow down, particularly on the Continental side, hurting merchants of perishable goods and manufacturers; some products could be barred from crossing borders; and experts predict higher prices and shortages.
In addition, Britain has no trade treaties with most of the world, including the United States, because it has operated under the European Union’s treaties, and negotiating new ones can take years. In a no-deal Brexit, the existing arrangements would abruptly cease to exist and Britain would default to rules set by the World Trade Organization, upending the way every importer, exporter and regulator in the country operates.
Economists and the government say that leaving without a plan in place would do severe economic harm. But the most ardently pro-Brexit lawmakers in Britain insist that the cliff edge is nothing to fear, and preferable to a long delay.
What is all the talk about elections?
There is at least one set of elections approaching that could affect Brexit, and others are possible.
European Union member countries are scheduled to hold elections for the European Parliament from May 23 to 26.
But if there were a two-year delay for Brexit, as some European officials have proposed, then Britain would be in an awkward position: It would be required to participate in elections, which the major British political parties do not want to take part in, to govern a bloc it intends to abandon.
The exit dates set in Brussels were chosen with these European elections in mind: May 22 is the day before Britain would have voted, and April 12 is the last day it could start preparations to hold a vote.
One of the nonbinding amendments Parliament might consider on Monday would approve Mrs. May’s deal, but only if it were also approved by popular vote. Many lawmakers want to go further and hold another referendum on the overall question of whether to leave the bloc, rerunning the vote held in 2016.
Mrs. May has opposed both a long Brexit postponement and a second referendum, and any reversal would infuriate pro-Brexit members of her Conservative Party.
In addition, the opposition Labour Party has been demanding early elections for a new British Parliament, and there is widespread speculation that Mrs. May — or a possible successor — might eventually be forced to call such elections.
Would a British election be a problem?
Brexit opponents are demanding a “people’s vote,” insisting that they would win such a referendum this time, and accusing resistant lawmakers of forcing an unwanted calamity on them. Brexit supporters say a do-over would be a slap in the face to those who voted the first time, and predict a backlash.
With emotions running very high, a second referendum could tear at the fabric of both the Labour and Conservative parties, and of the nation as a whole. Some political analysts say the issue might even split one or both parties apart.
Mrs. May has steadfastly insisted that she will deliver on the referendum, but her stance in the 2016 campaign was anti-Brexit. Most Conservatives supported Brexit, many of them doubt that Mrs. May is really on their side, and a significant minority in the party opposes Brexit.
Further complicating matters, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was officially anti-Brexit in 2016, is a longtime euroskeptic who is widely seen as wanting to leave. Most Labour supporters opposed Brexit, many of them doubt that Mr. Corbyn is really on their side and a significant minority in the party is pro-Brexit.
Early parliamentary elections would be likely to revolve around Brexit, and expose the same fissures.
Orignially published in NYT.