In the wake of the latest failed attempt to prevent a no-deal Brexit from happening, it now appears to be more likely than ever writes Larissa Brunner. By rejecting a Labour motion that would have given no-deal opponents a guaranteed chance to put forward legislation, the United Kingdom’s (UK) Parliament has yet again failed to articulate what it wants. Combined with developments on both sides of the Channel over the past few weeks – some of which were triggered or reinforced by the recent European Parliament (EP) elections –, this may set the UK and the European Union (EU) on a path towards no deal by design, stealth or default in October.
The UK dimension
Ever since Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation on 24 May, it has been widely speculated that a hard-line Brexiteer, who considers it his or her mandate to leave the EU at any cost and without further delay, would succeed her. The crushing historic defeat the Conservative Party suffered in the EP elections (8.8%, down from 23.3% in 2014) and the surge in support for Nigel Farage’s newly-formed Brexit Party (30.4%) has made this even more likely.
Indeed, the frontrunner in the leadership contest, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, has taken a tough line, saying that the UK “must leave the EU on October 31” and that a “delay means defeat”. If appointed, however, he would most likely try to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and in particular the Irish backstop before the Article 50 deadline expires, even though the EU has made it repeatedly clear that these issues would not be revisited. His no-deal rhetoric may thus be partly posturing; an attempt to convince the EU that the UK is ready to leave under any circumstances, and scare Brussels into reopening negotiations. This strategy would not only be doomed to fail but would also change the political tone of the Brexit process: while the EU27 may have had some sympathy for May, they probably would not look so kindly upon someone employing such tactics.
No deal by design?
The outcome could be a no-deal Brexit by design. If, as presumed, the EU rejects any attempts to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, the new prime minister may choose to leave the EU with no deal rather than pursuing one of the two alternatives: requesting another extension to Article 50 (and thereby, in the case of Johnson, breaking his pledge to leave on 31 October), or trying to push the existing deal through UK Parliament (a virtually impossible task, as May’s efforts over the past months have demonstrated). A version of this outcome would be a no deal by stealth, which would involve the prime minister running down the clock until 31 October, possibly by proroguing Parliament, rather than explicitly choosing no deal.
However, even if the next prime minister were to ask for another extension, it is far from certain whether the EU would accede, due to country-specific and EU-wide dynamics.
Member states under pressure
Following the EP elections, the governments of the two largest member states, France and Germany, are under pressure.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party won the largest share of the vote with 23.3%, slightly ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche! with 22.4%. This result came after six months of yellow vests protests, which forced Macron to slow down his reform agenda and make costly concessions. His setback could increase domestic pressure and threaten his standing among the EU27 if he is perceived to be weakened. This could create an incentive for him to adopt a more hard-line position on Brexit in order to appeal to his voter base, possibly diverting attention from domestic issues and underpinning his credibility as a committed pro-European.
Meanwhile, Germany’s governing parties also suffered blows, dropping to their lowest results in a nationwide election to date. The Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) secured the largest share of the vote with 28.9% but lost 6.4 percentage points compared to 2014. The Social Democratic Party (SPD), its junior coalition partner, even dropped to third place with 15.8%, 11.5 points lower than in 2014, and were overtaken by the opposition Green Party (20.5%, an increase of 9.8 points). More bad news for the CDU and SPD may follow in the autumn when three eastern federal states are set to vote. Discontent within the SPD could come to a head shortly afterwards when the party is set to carry out a midterm review of its role in the grand coalition, which may well lead to a government collapse and early elections. In this context, the German government is likely to be preoccupied with domestic issues over the coming months, with little capacity to assume a leading role on Brexit.
Several smaller countries also face upheaval. Following federal elections in Belgium in May, the coalition-building process is likely to drag on for months, with a new government only expected to be in place much later this year. Meanwhile, a snap election is set to take place in September in Austria, following the collapse of the former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s right-wing government.
The Irish government, which arguably has the largest stake in Brexit among the EU27, is more stable. Though polls suggest decreasing support for both the governing Fine Gael and the opposition Fianna Fáil – with the latter supporting the government through a confidence-and-supply agreement – a snap election before the UK’s exit is unlikely.
The political instabilities in a number of EU countries create a paradoxical situation: while the (interim) governments have strong incentives to avert a no-deal Brexit to avoid further upheaval at a sensitive time, their domestic preoccupations may limit their ability to prevent such an outcome and their willingness to expend political capital by opposing EU partners with more hard-line positions.
Shifting EU-wide dynamics
Meanwhile, dynamics at the EU level also appear to be shifting. Discordance between the member states over Brexit emerged in March and April regarding the length of the extension of Article 50. The argument of those taking a tougher line was that the UK would only make a decision when placed under pressure and that any extension should therefore be short and subject to conditions, while proponents of a softer approach believed that the UK would figure out what it wants – perhaps even to remain in the EU after all – if only given enough time. Their compromise was a delay until 31 October. However, events over the past weeks appear to prove the hardliners right: cross-party talks in the UK have collapsed and a positive solution seems more out of reach than ever, as polarisation increases and many Brexiteers and Remainers appear increasingly unwilling to accept anything less than no deal or no Brexit respectively.
Moreover, the delay has given the EU more time to prepare for no deal, insofar as this is possible. Combined with the expectation that the UK could not sustain a no-deal scenario for more than a few weeks and would return to the negotiating table sooner rather than later, this could help turn the prospect of a no-deal Brexit into something manageable.
Delaying the inevitable?
Put together, the dynamics in the UK, several member states and at the EU level suggest that a no-deal Brexit may be more likely than ever. If the next prime minister decides to pursue this path, it would be a no deal by design or stealth.
Yet even if he or she does ask for an extension, the request may come at a time when arguments against another delay are gaining traction, Macron adopts a more hard-line position and several other governments are distracted by their own domestic issues. It would likely lead to a genuine debate about the purpose of yet another extension. Unless the prime minister calls a second referendum or a snap general election – both unlikely, as a Brexiteer would not want to risk reversing Brexit or losing power to Labour – it is not clear what goal another extension would serve beyond delaying the inevitable. It is worth noting that any further extension requires unanimous approval from the European Council, so the default position is that it will not be granted. A no-deal Brexit by default could thus emerge as the second most likely outcome, after no deal by design or stealth, as the chances of a managed Brexit or no Brexit at all continue to decline.
This article was first published by the European Policy Centre (EPC). Larissa Brunner is a Policy Analyst with the EPC. More information can be found at www.epc.eu