It's been two and a half years since the British electorate voted by a very narrow margin to leave the European Union, a move that's referred to as "Brexit." It's been just under two years since British Prime Minister Theresa May sent a letter to the European Union officially informing the body of Britain's departure and starting a two-year clock, at the end of which Britain's membership in the EU would end.
Those two years will be up on March 29, and that deadline means that May, the British Parliament, and the entire population of Britain are facing some very unpleasant choices. Two years ago, Brexit proponents dreamed of a future when their nation could stop paying the approximately $17 billion annual EU membership fee, and stop being constrained by European rules, while still maintaining a "deep and special partnership" with Europe as May put it in her letter.
They've have a rude awakening from that dream. Britain's time as an EU member is running out, and hopes for a trouble-free departure are fading. Meanwhile, Parliament is behaving much like a grumpy toddler who loudly answers "No!" to everything--Do you want dinner? Do you want to go to bed? Do you want a glass of milk?--and can't seem to say yes to anything.
Here's what Parliament has voted down so far:
No to May's negotiated deal with the EU.
Britain is the first nation to ever leave the EU, but in other nations, such as France and Greece, some citizens and political parties were also calling for departure. So EU leaders had every motivation to turn Brexit into a cautionary tale, frightening enough to scare any other nation from going down the same path.
Knowing this, it's easy to see why the best deal May could wrangle from the EU was not the "deep and special partnership" she hoped for. Instead, she negotiated a deal in which Britain remains in the EU but loses decision-making power for at least 21 months. That deal went down to a crushing defeat in Parliament--it literally lost by the widest margin of any Parliament vote ever.
No to the "Irish Backstop."
From the beginning, one of the stickiest problems with Brexit has been what to do about the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU. Before the EU, there was a "hard" border between the two, an enforced division between two nations that had seen plenty of hostility over the centuries. During those bad times, the border crossings and checkpoints were a frequent focus of violence and bloodshed. Those bad times came to an end with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and one of the provisions of that agreement was that there would be no more hard border.
Absolutely no one in Ireland, Britain, or Europe wants to see those bad old days of violence return, which means no one wants a hard border. But how you avoid having border crossings at what will now be the border between two nations is a tricky question. So May and the EU negotiated an agreement with a safety measure. Once Britain leaves the EU, its leaders and May will have, at most, until the end of 2022 to negotiate a trade deal. If they can't, Britain will automatically remain part of the EU customs union--meaning they will not charge each other tariffs--until a deal can be worked out or until forever, whichever comes first. This is a particular sticking point for Parliament, but the EU says it will not budge on the issue.
No to removing Theresa May.
Some predicted that if May's negotiated Brexit deal went down to ignominious defeat, as happened, she would either resign, or be removed from office by Parliament in a vote of no confidence. She didn't resign. Parliament had its no confidence vote, and by a slim margin it voted to leave her in place.
No to taking over negotiations from Theresa May.
Having decided not to accept her deal, and also decided not to remove her from office, Parliament next voted on an amendment that would have given Parliament the power to instruct May to ask for an extension of the Brexit deadline. That extension would require unanimous approval from the EU's 27 other members, but there are signs that European leaders are indeed preparing to grant it if the U.K. asks for it.
May was sharply critical of this amendment, saying it would set a dangerous precedent for how the nation is governed. But perhaps not surprisingly, Parliament voted no in any case.
No to a "no deal" Brexit.
Now that the original deal has been rejected by Parliament, what happens if the EU and Britain don't have a deal by March 29? Unless there's an extension, the U.K. will default to a "no-deal" exit, in which it will have no special trading status with the EU, the two Irelands will have a hard border between them, and Britain will pay and receive full tariffs for any trade with Europe.
This is the frightening scenario that's causing companies to leave England, inspiring the British to stockpile medicines in anticipation of shortages, and has inspired a "Brexit
prepper" industry in which people are purchasing and storing 30-day supplies of food.
After all its other no votes, Parliament also voted against the idea of a no-deal Brexit. However, it was a nonbinding vote and even if it weren't, Parliament has no way to exert its will on the Europeans.
What happens next?
Parliament has told May it wants her to negotiate a new deal, while the Europeans insist they won't do that. So one possible scenario is that, right before the deadline, Parliament will vote to approve the original deal, or perhaps a very slightly improved version of it that the Europeans might agree to to help Britain save face. A no-deal Brexit is a second possible scenario. A third is that Britain might ask for and receive an extension past the March 29 deadline.
If the deadline is extended, there could be a repeat referendum on Brexit, as some in Parliament and hundreds of thousands of protesters have demanded. But if the departure is once again voted in, then Britain and its leaders will be right back where they started. And if the second referendum goes against Brexit, and May seeks to remain in the EU after all, then those who voted for Brexit and still support leaving might feel like their first vote counted for nothing.