Brexit is scheduled to take place on March 29th—but the United Kingdom isn’t ready.

March 8, 2019

Illustrations by Dan Woodger

Here’s the problem: there isn’t a deal in place to manage the U.K.’s relationship with the twenty-seven countries in the European Union after Brexit, which is set to happen on March 29th. The U.K. has been part of the E.U. for so long that the normal kinds of agreements that countries have with one another—on trade, transport, visas, even aviation rules and drivers’ licenses—are missing.

Here’s why the problem is so hard to solve: any deal with the E.U. requires Parliament’s approval. But Parliament is deeply divided over what Brexit should look like, and even over whether it should happen at all—the referendum on Brexit, in 2016, passed with just under fifty-two per cent of the vote. One big question is the future of the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the E.U. How can the U.K. have a controlled border with the E.U., which is the premise of Brexit, and keep the Irish border “frictionless”? Prime Minister Theresa May worked out a deal that would, in effect, keep the U.K. partly tied to the E.U. until it finds an answer on Ireland—this is known as “the backstop.” In January, Parliament rejected that deal by a margin of two hundred and thirty votes.

Here are the paths forward.


Brexit with a deal

Parliament approves a deal that the E.U. can live with, and the departure takes place in a more or less orderly way.

 

No-deal Brexit

If Parliament doesn’t find a deal with the E.U. that it likes, then the U.K. is still set to leave on March 29th, but in a chaotic fashion. There are projections of shortages of pharmaceuticals and other essential goods, and, if nothing more is done, millions of people—Britons in the E.U. and E.U. citizens in the U.K.—could suddenly become, in many respects, undocumented.

Brexit is cancelled

There is a legal mechanism for the U.K. to call the whole thing off. Politically, this would almost certainly require another referendum or an upheaval in Parliament, but it’s not out of the question.

Brexit is delayed

The deadline is extended in the hope that there can be a deal or a cancellation—before time runs out again.


Brexit with a deal

Parliament approves a deal that the E.U. can live with, and the departure takes place in a more or less orderly way.

 

No-deal Brexit

If Parliament doesn’t find a deal with the E.U. that it likes, then the U.K. is still set to leave on March 29th, but in a chaotic fashion. There are projections of shortages of pharmaceuticals and other essential goods, and, if nothing more is done, millions of people—Britons in the E.U. and E.U. citizens in the U.K.—could suddenly become, in many respects, undocumented.

Brexit is cancelled

There is a legal mechanism for the U.K. to call the whole thing off. Politically, this would almost certainly require another referendum or an upheaval in Parliament, but it’s not out of the question.

Brexit is delayed

The deadline is extended in the hope that there can be a deal or a cancellation—before time runs out again.

Two years and nine months after the referendum, the endgame begins with a series of votes, the first to be held no later than March 12th.

Vote: Does Parliament Want Theresa May’s Deal?

The only deal that she’s offering is basically the same one that Members of Parliament rejected in January, and still don’t like: some see it as not enough of a break with Europe, some as too much of one, and some object to the Irish-border backstop. Why might M.P.s vote for it now? Mostly because they’re worried about Brexit being cancelled or about a no-deal Brexit wrecking the economy. M.P.s might offer amendments—such as one requiring a referendum on May’s deal, with cancelling Brexit as the alternative.


Parliament votes yes

with an amendment requiring a second referendum.

Parliament votes yes,

and there will be Brexit

with a deal.

Parliament votes no,

and there will be another vote the next day.

The U.K. votes yes on the terms, and there will be Brexit with a deal.

The U.K. votes to cancel Brexit.


Parliament

votes yes with an amendment requiring a second referendum.

Parliament votes no, and there will be another vote the next day.

Parliament votes yes, and there will be Brexit

with a deal.

The U.K. votes yes on the terms, and there will be Brexit with a deal.

The U.K. votes to cancel Brexit.

Vote: Does Parliament Want a No-Deal Brexit?

Who would want this? Hard-line Brexiteers, such as the Tory M.P.s Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, who would seemingly prefer chaos to any delay or possible cancellation.


Parliament votes yes

on a no-deal Brexit, and the U.K. and Europe get ready for a wild ride.

Parliament votes no,

and there will be yet another vote the next day.


Parliament votes yes

on a no-deal Brexit, and

the U.K. and Europe get ready for a wild ride.

Parliament votes no, and there will be yet another vote

the next day.

 

Vote: Does Parliament Want a “Short, Limited” Delay in Brexit?

If Parliament has already voted against both the only available deal and a no-deal Brexit, this is the only rational option left. So why would anyone vote no? Maybe to try to force Theresa May to resign, or maybe because people in British politics have stopped acting rationally. But note that a delay would not be automatic; every E.U. member country would have to agree to it, and some might demand concessions from the U.K. in return.


Parliament votes yes,

and May asks the E.U. for an Article 50 extension.

The U.K. doesn’t get the extension it wants. Back to the beginning.

The E.U. grants the U.K. the extension

it wants.

Get ready for a no-deal Brexit on March 29th.

Back to the beginning. Try for a desperate, last-minute compromise?


Parliament votes yes,

and May asks the E.U. for an Article 50 extension.

Back to the beginning. Try for a desperate, last-minute compromise?

Get ready for a no-deal Brexit on March 29th.

The U.K. doesn’t get the extension it wants.

Back to the beginning.

The E.U. grants the U.K. the

extension

it wants.

Brexit is delayed

If, in the end, Brexit is delayed, there are more options.


Parliament votes to hold a second referendum.

May loses her job. There could be a general election and a new cast of characters.

May could propose the

first deal again, or negotiate

a new one.

The U.K. votes to cancel Brexit.

The U.K. votes for Brexit again.


May loses her job. There could be

a general election and a new cast

of characters.

Parliament votes to hold a second referendum.

May could propose the

first deal again,

or negotiate

a new one.

The U.K. votes to cancel Brexit.

The U.K. votes for Brexit again.

Around and around we go. Maybe Parliament would find a way to live with May’s deal, or with a reworked version of it, or with one that another Prime Minister and the E.U. agree on, or there’s a second referendum. But the same dilemmas would have to be faced: What about the Irish border? How close should the U.K. and Europe remain? Was Brexit a terrible idea that should be abandoned? When the extension runs out, there may again be the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. The edge of the cliff would just be a little farther away. The U.K. still has to make a decision.

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