Europe has reset the final countdown on Brexit yet again. On April 10, Britain and the European Union agreed to delay the country’s exit from the bloc until Oct. 31. That gives British Prime Minister Theresa May a few months to work out consensus on Brexit in Parliament, where MPs tried and failed for the first few months of 2019 to agree with Ms. May and among themselves about what a post-EU Britain should look like. And for now, it’s delayed the prospect of a “no deal” Brexit, a potentially catastrophic scenario for the nation’s economy. what you need to know about how we got here.

Why Brexit?

It’s been nearly three years since prime minister David Cameron rolled the dice on a referendum about whether to secede from the European Union, and Britons unexpectedly voted yes. Since then, the governing Conservative Party, led by Ms. May, has been at war with itself about how to go forward. On one side is Ms. May’s “soft Brexit” camp, which favours keeping some ties with Europe and, in particular, a compromise to allow freedom of movement between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. On the other side is the “hard Brexit” faction, which wants a complete break between Britain and the EU single market. Ms. May already triggered the mechanism to quit the union, Article 50, and anti-Brexit supporters’ proposals to hold a new referendum haven’t gained ground. So now it’s just a question of when Brexit happens and how. Many believe the worst-case scenario is a “no-deal” Brexit, in which there’s no new trade agreement to replace EU membership: That means gridlock at the border, shortages of food and goods and the flight of corporate headquarters from Britain.

The options Parliament has rejected so far



It took a year and a half for British Prime Minister Theresa May to hammer out the first draft withdrawal agreement with the EU, which was unveiled on Nov. 13 last year. The deal– a 584-page agreement and a 26-page political declaration – was quickly approved by Brussels, and would have set a divorce date of March 29, 2019, but kept Britain inside the EU single market until the end of 2020. But this deal provokes an angry backlash in Ms. May’s government. The main sticking point is a “backstop” plan to keep Britain in a customs union and avoid the return of a hard Irish border: The Northern Irish-based Democratic Unionist Party, which Ms. May depends on for continued support of her government, opposes the backstop because, while it would leave the Irish border open, it could create impediments for Northern Irish trade with the rest of the U.K. Ms. May survives an exodus of top cabinet ministers and a challenge to her leadership of the Conservative Party, but on Jan. 15 her deal meets a historic defeat: 432 against, 202 in favour, the worst government defeat ever in the House of Commons.


MPs vote on an array of seven non-binding amendments to Ms. May’s deal. Most of them are defeated, but two key ones pass. One rejects the prospect of a “no deal” Brexit, in which Britain would leave the union as scheduled without a replacement trade deal. Another – dubbed the “Brady amendment” after the Tory backbencher who introduced it, Graham Brady – gave Ms. May a mandate to go back to the EU and ask for a new deal changing the backstop, which the EU didn’t want to do because they thought the issue had already been settled months earlier. Ms. May seeks Parliament’s support for her negotiating strategy in a non-binding vote on Feb. 14, but she loses 303 to 258. For many Tories, the strategy is no good because she didn’t rule out walking away from talks with the EU and allowing a no-deal Brexit.


Seeking to find common ground between the hard- and soft-Brexit factions, housing minister Kit Malthouse proposes offering the EU two new options, both of which would extend the departure timeline to December, 2021. Plan A would establish a U.K.-EU free trade deal instead of the backstop; Plan B would be a “managed no-deal Brexit,” which would soften the economic blow of restored trade barriers. One EU official describes the Malthouse compromise as a “bonkers” plan and it doesn’t gain any traction.


Ms. May brings a revised version of her deal back to Parliament on March 12 after a new agreement with the EU that would reduce the risk of Britain being stuck in the backstop if no new trade deal was reached. But it isn’t enough to mollify critics of the backstop, and the motion is defeated 391 to 242. A further decision by the House speaker bars Ms. May from bringing back the deal for a third vote, unless she makes substantial changes first. MPs do agree to send Ms. May back to the EU and ask for more time. Her preferred new date for Brexit is June 30, but the EU settles on a tighter deadline: April 12 if Ms. May can’t get her modified withdrawal agreement approved by MPs, and May 22 if she can.


On March 25, MPs take unprecedented steps to wrest the Brexit file out of the Prime Minister’s hands, voting 329 to 302 to hold non-binding “indicative votes” to weigh support for alternatives. The eight options include a second Brexit referendum, revoking Brexit, staying in the EU customs union, the Malthouse compromise or a no-deal Brexit. In votes on March 27 and April 1, none of the alternative options find a consensus.


Ahead of the third showdown over her Brexit plan, Ms. May promises to quit as Prime Minister if MPs vote for the withdrawal agreement, hoping this will allay critics. On March 29, MPs vote just on the withdrawal agreement, not the political declaration that would lay out the future U.K.-EU relationship. Had the vote passed, Britain would have won the sought-after extension to May 22. Instead, it fails, throwing Britain’s economic future into more chaos.


After her third defeat, Ms. May is under a tight deadline: Get an extension from the EU by April 12, or allow a no-deal Brexit to happen on that date. She asks the EU to delay until June 30, but after emergency talks they give her even more time: Oct. 31, with a review of the terms in June. The deal, which British lawmakers quickly approve, still leaves room for an exit before October as long as Parliament agrees on it.

The Globe and Mail, March 29, 2019