The EU has agreed to Theresa May’s Brexit deal. At a special meeting of the European Council in Brussels, the leaders of the 27 countries remaining in the bloc endorsed both the Withdrawal Agreement, which sets out the terms under which the U.K. will leave the EU in March 2019, and the Political Declaration, which establishes the framework for negotiation of a future trade deal. “Ahead of us is the difficult process of ratification as well as further negotiations,” said European Council leader Donald Tusk. “But regardless of how it will all end, one thing is certain: we will remain friends until the end of days, and one day longer.”
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - NOVEMBER 25: European Council President Donald Tusk speaks at a press conference after attending a special session of the European Council over Brexit on November 25, 2018. Leaders of the 27 remaining member states of the European Union approved the United Kingdom's withdrawal agreement for leaving the European Union and the political declaration that will set the course for the U.K.'s relationship with the E.U. once Brexit is complete. (Getty Images) GETTY
After all the mud-slinging on both sides, some might be skeptical about Tusk’s vow of eternal friendship. But the EU’s relationship with the U.K. is by no means over. The next stage of negotiation is about defining how the relationship will work in future. Tusk’s statement is a timely reminder that the EU is still an ally and trade partner of the U.K. It is not an enemy, as some British politicians have portrayed it. If trade negotiations are to proceed constructively, the aggressive rhetoric and references to world wars must stop.
But although the EU has endorsed the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, there is still a major obstacle. The U.K. Parliament must now approve the deal. Currently, it does not appear that the U.K. Parliament has any intention of doing so.
The Withdrawal Agreement was panned by politicians of all colors even before the ink was dry. The opposition Labour Party immediately said it would vote against it, though as it had already signaled that its Members of Parliament (MPs) would vote against any deal the Conservative Government agreed with the EU, this was not exactly a surprise. About 80 MPs in Mrs. May’s own party – both hard-line Brexiters and Remainers - also said they would vote against the deal. And crucially, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on whose Parliamentary votes the U.K. government depends, rejected it. Unless a significant number of these rebels change their minds, Mrs. May is heading for a resounding defeat.
But what will happen if she is defeated? The EU has already said it will not reopen negotiations. Does this mean a no-deal Brexit?
Not necessarily. Mrs. May could try to use the threat of no-deal Brexit to force the deal through, perhaps on a second or third Parliamentary vote. There is a risk that her own MPs might try to unseat her, but a recent attempt by the European Research Group (ERG), a group of hard-line Brexiters in Mrs. May’s own Conservative party, to force a vote of no confidence in her leadership failed when its own members refused to back it. Many Tories dislike Mrs. May’s deal, but that doesn’t mean they want a different leader – yet.
On the other side of the political divide, the Labour Party hopes that voting down the deal would force the Government to call a General Election. If Labour were to win that election, it would then attempt to renegotiate the terms of the deal, as outlined by Jeremy Corbyn in his statement today:
We will work with others to block a no-deal outcome, and ensure that Labour’s alternative plan for a sensible deal to bring the country together is on the table. That includes a permanent customs union with a UK say, a strong single-market deal and guarantees on workers’ rights, consumer and environmental protections.
Corbyn’s proposal sounds much like the “Norway+” trade agreement that the EU has always said was a possibility – the softest of soft Brexits. It thus appears to be a viable alternative to May’s deal.
But there is a simply enormous elephant in this particular room. If the U.K. were to remain permanently in the EU’s customs union and single market, it would have to accept freedom of movement. But Labour’s “Negotiating Brexit” manifesto explicitly says “freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.” And it goes on to describe the sorts of restrictions on freedom of movement that a Labour government might consider:
…employer sponsorship, work permits, visa regulations or a tailored mix of all these...
These measures are not remotely compatible with a “Norway+” deal.