January 29 marks 2-month point before Great Britain is supposed to officially exit the European Union. Britain’s March 29 exit, as result of EU Article 50 was planned when the British Government officially informed the EU of its intention to exit the Union following the summer 2016 referendum. Article 50 offered Great Britain a 2-year transitional period to negotiate an exit deal with the European Union. After years of contentious negotiation regarding every issue from cheese subsidies to governance of the Straights of Gibraltar, a proposed deal with finally reached in late 2018 between British Prime Minister Theresa May and all the remaining 27 EU countries. Following announcement and release of the deal, many British Members of Parliament heavily criticized its text. Fearing defeat, Prime Minister May delayed voting on the deal for an attempt at renegotiation, but after failing to renegotiate, the deal was voted down in January with the largest legislative defeat by vote in Britain in the last 30 years.
Now, with 2 months to go, Prime Minister May is facing political backlash at home and abroad. May’s last attempt as described above to renegotiate with the EU proved to be disastrous. The biggest current sticking point for the Brexit deal is the Irish Border. Northern Ireland is one of the four countries constituting Great Britain, yet the only one not on the main British Island. Sharing a geographic island with Ireland, Northern Ireland has faced a long and recent history of violence and “troubles” between the ethnic British and ethnic Irish who reside in the region. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement finally ended the brutal violence and ensured a soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would allow for passport free travel across the Irish Island. Now, with Britain set to leave the European Union, the Irish border has been thrust into public debate. While no one wants a return to violence in the streets of Belfast, Britain fears the plan to keep an open border until a new deal has been negotiated will lock them into a long and burdensome customs agreement with the EU. The DUP, the biggest political party of Northern Ireland and the ally that gives Theresa May’s conservative Government a Parliamentary Majority has opposed the current Theresa May deal because it offers the potential for Northern Ireland to be treated differently from the rest of Great Britain—an outcome they ideologically oppose. The Irish Republic wants to ensure a hard border never emerges back in Ireland and greatly fears the potential return to violence that could result from a hard border. While recent reports suggest Prime Minister May has made peace with the DUP and will present the EU and the Irish Republic with a united front, no deal has been reached regarding the Irish border.
The Northern Ireland issue, among other thorny and tricky complexities, have made Brexit negotiations increasingly difficult for Theresa May. Earlier on January 29, Prime Minister May told press members she would seek to renegotiate certain aspects of the EU exit deal such as the Northern Ireland border. The EU has previously stated; however, they are unwilling to re-negotiate the deal.
Prime Minister May has survived two votes of confidence in the last 2 months and has already said she will resign at the end of her term. It appears with two months before “Brexit” there are four options remaining for May and the British Government: A deal passes the British Parliament before March 29, Article 50 is extended allowing for further negotiations, a second referendum is called sending Brits to the ballot box with a chance to re-do their 2016 decision, March 29 hits without a deal or a delay and Britain experiences a “hard Brexit” out of the European Union. While May has insisted she will not call for a second referendum and will honor the people’s 2016 vote for Britain to leave the EU, the possibility of a “hard Brexit” is frightening for her, Britain, and the world. A “hard Brexit” would entail Britain leaving the European Union on March 29, 2019 without a deal in place with the EU. This would immediately lead to a return to hard border security and the abolition of all trade and travel deals in place between Britain and the EU. Britain has begun to prepare for this doomsday scenario by readying border troops and stockpiling medicine and food the British government fears could be in short supply.
A no deal Brexit is uniformly unwanted by all parties. A growing belief that Members of Parliament will avoid a no-deal Brexit at all costs have provided some relief to concerned spectators. The British currency, the Great British Pound, has rallied recently and British economic indicators show growing confidence Britain will avoid crashing out the EU without a deal. While Britain certainly wants to avoid a no-deal Brexit, how it will either negotiate a new deal or convince MPs to support the current proposition remains to be seen. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and main Brexit leader Boris Johnson have strongly opposed Theresa May’s deal and publicly questioned her leadership and ability to lead Britain to Brexit. With two months before Britain’s planned departure, Brexit is as tumultuous and complicated as ever. Avoiding a hard Brexit will take deft negotiations and compromise in a very shortened window. For now, Britain hits the two-month mark with great uncertainty. With no deal in place it remains possible any of the scenarios will occur. The Brexit developments over the next two months will be crucial for the future of Great Britain, Europe, and the world.