After days of mounting criticism and opposition from across all corners of the parliamentary divide, United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday announced that her beleaguered government would not be proceeding with a vote on the terms of Brexit that she had negotiated with the European Union (EU). In any situation, such a move would be an embarrassing climb-down. In the case of May, on an issue so critical now to her nation, as the clock relentlessly ticks towards that departure date of March 29, the move was one that showed just how weak her position is, both as a Prime Minister of a nation so divided over the very meaning and nature of Brexit, and also as the leader of a Conservative party that is divided, unruly and in a state of near-rebellion.
The effect of May’s action did little to encourage international markets, with the pound falling to its lowest level against the euro, the common currency used by 19 of the 28 member-states of the EU, and there seems little hope that these negative market and currency fluctuations will cease anytime soon.
In making her announcement to the Commons, she had already dispatched her top political aides back to Brussels in an attempt to wrest concessions from the EU, and she herself is now working the phones, meeting with some of her EU counterparts in an attempt to somehow enhance the deal sealed with the EU27. Realistically, there seems to be little room for manoeuvre for May, given that the document was agreed after 18 months of negotiations — a period when it seemed as if the UK government was negotiating with itself given the rifts within its ranks.
There is little appetite in Europe to continue with Brexit negotiation — besides, time is running out, and many on the continent view May’s political difficulties of being a purely British affair. There’s an agreed deal in place, and if that can’t be approved by the British parliament, that is London’s affair.
The current deal contains the so-called “backstop” — a guarantee that regardless of the future trading arrangement between the UK and the EU, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will remain open, free of customs and security checks. That is a guarantee May gave a year ago to move talks on from their initial opening phases, and it is a red line for both the Dublin government and the EU. Simply put, there is no wriggle room on this issue. Yes, Brussels may give what reassurances it can to assist May politically now, but the backstop is the reddest of red lines.