We’re a Month Away from the Brexit Date: Just how Likely is an October 31st Exit?
Forget pumpkin lattes. If you want October spice, look no further than the ongoing Brexit shenanigans. As we’re now within a month of the Halloween Brexit date, it seems a good time to review where things stand – and what on earth might happen between now and the end of October.
MPs Have Been Busy Trying to Prevent a No-Deal Brexit
Such is the news cycle these days that September 9 seems a lifetime ago. But the date is significant. Fresh from their summer holidays, and amidst concerns that Boris Johnson was leading the UK into a no-deal Brexit, MPs quickly pushed through a piece of legislation to prevent just that. On September 9, that bill received Royal Assent – the Queen’s rubber stamp, essentially – meaning it officially became law.
To understand what this means in practice, let’s take a quick step back and clarify what “Brexit deal” and “no-deal” mean. The “deal” everyone’s talking about is the withdrawal agreement that former prime minister Theresa May negotiated with the EU, which sets out the terms for an orderly divorce, including a transition period. (That’s all “the deal” covers; it doesn’t delve into trade arrangements, security cooperation, or other key factors of the UK’s relationship with the EU, because that’s all subject to future negotiations.)
So when people talk about “no-deal,” they’re referring to the prospect of the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement – a very real prospect seeing as Theresa May’s deal has been repeatedly voted down by MPs. Crucially, no withdrawal agreement means no transition period, which in turn means the UK would leave the single market and customs union effectively overnight. Many fear this could lead to chaos, such as immediate tariffs on goods traded between the UK and EU, heavier checks at UK–EU borders, and logjams at UK ports.
That’s where the new legislation comes in. According to the new law, Boris Johnson has to ask the EU for a three-month extension to the Brexit deadline by October 19 – moving the deadline from October 31, 2019 to January 31, 2020 – unless he can either secure a new deal, somehow pass Theresa May’s deal through parliament, or (equally unlikely) get MPs to approve a no-deal Brexit. This raises the prospect of yet another delay to Brexit.
If There’s No Breakthrough in Negotiations, Will Brexit Definitely be Delayed?
Nothing is certain. To say Boris Johnson isn’t a big fan of the anti-no-deal legislation is like saying the Titanic experienced a minor hiccup at sea. Understatement isn’t the word. Johnson has repeatedly committed to the October 31 deadline and, in his trademark bombastic style, said he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than go cap in hand to the EU begging for an extension.
As a result, some are worried Johnson may attempt to find a way around the law. Interestingly, the legislation says it’s the prime minister who must ask for the extension – not anyone else. Could he simply refuse to sign a letter requesting an extension? It would be a bold move, but Boris Johnson is hardly a shy wallflower.
And we mustn’t forget the EU’s role in this. Let’s say Boris Johnson swallows his pride and does request an extension. The EU could say “no thanks” (or “non, merci”). It’s unlikely, but EU officials must be wondering what good an extra three months would do, given the previous six-month extension hasn’t yielded much beyond a new couple moving into 10 Downing Street.
One final interesting point about the new legislation: it’s only focused on avoiding a no-deal Brexit on October 31. It does nothing to block a no-deal Brexit after that date.
Meanwhile, What’s Happening in UK–EU Negotiations?
We know that Boris Johnson only has until October 19 to secure some breakthrough with the EU before he’s, in theory at least, forced to ask for an extension. So just how likely is that breakthrough?
Based on recent discussions, it’s not looking good. Johnson says he’s working hard to negotiate a new deal, but given that the previous withdrawal agreement took around 18 months to negotiate, time definitely isn’t on his side.
Johnson’s lead Brexit negotiator, David Frost, and the Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, have been in talks with EU negotiators. And Boris Johnson has had some meetings with EU officials and other heads of state. But, at the time of writing, there’s little positive news emerging from these talks.
Boris Johnson’s goal is to negotiate a revised deal that doesn’t include the backstop – the insurance policy designed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But there’s no simple solution to the very tricky problem of the Irish border. One idea under discussion is to have Northern Ireland more closely tied to the EU, effectively meaning the border is in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. But distancing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK is deeply unpopular with many – not least Theresa May, who refused to entertain the idea in the past.
If the Irish border problem can somehow be solved and the backstop removed from the withdrawal agreement, Boris Johnson stands a much better chance of getting the deal through parliament – meaning there’d be no need for an extension. It’s a huge “if,” though.
For Boris Johnson, Life’s Tough at the Top
As if tricky EU negotiations and MPs actively working against him weren’t enough to deal with, Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue (suspend) parliament for five weeks was spectacularly overturned by the Supreme Court. With the UK’s top judges ruling that the PM had acted unlawfully, Johnson is now facing calls to resign – and after he’s barely unpacked at Number 10.
Johnson’s critics claimed the suspension of parliament was a not-very-subtle ruse to prevent MPs from meddling in his Brexit plans. Meanwhile, critics of the Supreme Court’s decision claim there’s a conspiracy to prevent Brexit altogether. The stage is being set for a “parliament versus the people” melodrama, a narrative that portrays MPs as trying to dismiss 17.4 million voters’ decision to leave the EU. This ratcheting up of dialogue and temperature is unhelpful, to say the least. And Johnson himself is doing little, if anything, to cool things down.
Place Your Bets
Bottom line: it’s anyone’s guess whether the UK will exit the EU on Halloween – and if it does, whether it would be under the terms of an approved withdrawal agreement or a no-deal scenario. The UK is trapped in a Carry On Brexit farce. Uncertainty is the new norm. And “Brexit exhaustion” is surely on the verge of being classified as an actual medical condition. (“Br-exhaustion?” “Brexit-itis?”)
This continual uncertainty leaves UK businesses in a precarious position. With many delaying or shelving investment plans, business leaders are craving clarity. Will the fog miraculously clear in the next few weeks, or will the Brexit ball be kicked down the line into January 2020? I’m glad I’m not a betting man.