Brexit drama: What you need to know

Amid deep disagreements over the best way forward for the UK, May's proposal has remarkably appeared to unite politicians from across party divides in their droves. (Reuters)

Amid deep disagreements over the best way forward for the UK, May's proposal has remarkably appeared to unite politicians from across party divides in their droves. (Reuters)

At almost 600 pages long, Theresa May’s draft agreement over Britain’s departure from the European Union is nearly half the length of Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s vaunted masterpiece, War and Peace.

But for the UK’s embattled prime minister, it’s currently all war and precious little peace.

May’s proposed deal, brokered after months of back-and-forth with Brussels, has sparked political chaos in the UK, triggering a wave of cabinet resignations and rumours of a possible leadership challenge — all the while prompting yet more calls for a second referendum on whether to exit the EU in the first place.

Here, we take a look at the current political drama, what led to it and what to expect next.

What is Brexit?

Brexit is the oft-used term for the UK’s move to renounce its membership of the European Union following a deeply divisive referendum in June 2016.

More than 30 millions voters took part in the poll, with 52% deciding in favour of leaving the 28-member bloc.

The referendum returned varying results in the four constituent parts of the UK: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The majority of voters in England and Wales backed Brexit, while most people in Scotland and Northern Ireland supported remaining part of the European club.

The UK in its entirety, however, is due to leave the EU on March 29 2019.

Why is securing support for the proposed deal proving difficult?

Amid deep disagreements over the best way forward for the UK, May’s proposal has remarkably appeared to unite politicians from across party divides in their droves.

Unfortunately for May, however, they are united in their dismissal of her deal but precious little else.

For those in favour of Britain remaining in the EU, the draft agreement is a watered down, inadequate version of the country’s existing EU membership arrangement with access to the bloc’s customs union and single market.

For those in favour of a definitive Brexit, meanwhile, the deal fails to deliver on a clean break with the European project.

Complicating matters even further are the vexing questions posed by what might happen to the Irish border — one of the biggest sticking points in the negotiations — in a post-Brexit Britain.

The deal reached between the UK and the EU allows for a “backstop” to be set up in order to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, if no trade deal is sorted out during the so-called transitional period between 29 March, 2019 and December 31, 2020.

Under the terms of the draft agreement, the whole of the UK will remain in a customs union with the EU “unless and until” the bloc agrees there is no prospect of a return to a hard border.

But the “backstop” idea has prompted scorn from May’s parliamentary crutch, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who argue such an arrangement could mean different rules being applied to Northern Ireland than the other parts of the UK.

Hardline Brexiteers within her own Conservative Party, meanwhile, are also unimpressed and have suggested the proposed deal could trap the UK into the customs union forever, effectively forcing it to indefinitely accept EU regulations moving forward.

What is the impact of the uncertainty?

Turmoil — and plenty of it.

Politically, talk of a Conservative party leadership challenge, a general election and even a possible second referendum is rife. 

Economically, the UK’s stock market and currency have both been rattled, with businesses wary of a possible no-deal Brexit if May’s fragile proposal falls through.

The pound suffered its biggest fall against the US dollar for two years on Thursday, before stabilising somewhat on Friday.

Meanwhile, the FTSE 100 — a share index of the 100 largest companies listed on the London Stock Exchange — closed on Friday about one percent down against a week ago.

What will happen next?

May’s deal will now be put to a series of regional and domestic tests.

First up, the prime minister must try to get the leaders of the EU’s 27 other member states to officially back her proposal at a summit on November 25.

If approved, the deal will then be put to a vote in the British parliament, most likely in December.

The result will be decided by a simple majority, with around 320 votes needed to be certain of success.

But May’s party does not command a majority in the 650-member House of Commons, holding only 315 seats and relying on the support of the 10 DUP members of parliament to govern.

Furthermore, the Conservatives — commonly known as the Tories — are deeply divided on Brexit. Dozens of the party’s parliamentary members are expected to vote against May’s deal.

The DUP’s parliamentary contingent, meanwhile, have said they will not support the proposal because of the “backstop” conditions.

As a result, May’s facing a monumental political dogfight.

To succeed, she must find support among parliamentarians belonging to the main opposition Labour Party and other political groupings who may yet be persuaded to vote in favour of the deal in a bid to avoid the UK leaving the EU with no deal at all, a so-called “cliff-edge” Brexit.

But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has called on May to withdraw her “half-baked Brexit deal”, saying the proposal did not meet his party’s six tests and was not “in the interests of the whole country”.

Several other party leaders have also slammed the proposal.

If MPs back the deal, then an EU Withdrawal Agreement bill will be introduced to parliament.
That will then need to be ratified by parliament before it can proceed to a European Parliament vote and, if that’s successful, an eventual EU Council approval process.

If parliament votes against the deal, however, expect all political hell to break loose.

The government will technically have 21 days to set out how they intend to proceed in a statement, but in such a scenario, the UK leaving the EU without a deal, a renegotiation of the existing proposal, holding a general election or even staging a second referendum on EU membership would all be eminently possible outcomes. — Al Jazeera

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