What do tonight’s Brexit votes mean for Ireland?

Posted By: April 01, 2019


Seven key points as the House of Commons tries to find a way forward

Cliff Taylor. Irish Times. Dublin. Monday, April 1, 2019


The House of Commons will vote on Monday night on a range of options for Brexit in what are called indicative votes – an attempt to try to find a way forward.

Time is getting really short now, with the EU having set April 12th as a deadline for the UK to bring forward new proposals and realistically progress essentially ahead of an emergency summit due on April 10th.

The House of Commons speaker will decide later what proposals will be voted on. Depending on what emerges, the UK could decide to seek a long extension of the Article 50 process – or it could still hope to leave by May 22nd.

Or, if it fails to agree on a way forward, a no-deal exit looms – or a UK general election.

Here are the key points for Ireland:

  1. The essential issue for Ireland is to avoid a no-deal Brexit, which could happen as early as April 12th, throwing up huge economic threats for us and an immediate issue in relation to the Irish Border. In last week’s series of votes, there was no majority for any of the eight options put before MPs. So, it would be positive if tonight’s vote showed MP’s were starting to settle on one way forward, to be confirmed probably on Wednesday.

This could provide an option for Theresa May to go back to the EU leaders to seek a long extension in the Brexit date. However there are still problems here – she may not, politically, feel able to support whatever way forward is chosen. And an extension would also require the UK to elect MEPs to the new parliament.

So, a positive move by the UK parliament tonight would be welcome and potentially important, but there would still be a long way to go. Close attention will be paid to whether any option gets not only a majority but a big one – indicating wide support – and how the politics play out. We are still some way to seeing a no-deal move off the table of options, unfortunately, so this will continue to be a focus in meetings the Taoiseach is having this week with the French president and the German chancellor.

  1. The options which came closest to acceptance last week were support for a customs union with the EU and support for a confirmatory public vote – some kind of second referendum. It is important to realize that these are two different types of thing. One looks at the UK’s final destination; the other is about how it gets there. It would be possible, for example, to choose a direction involving both – support for a customs union and some kind of second referendum to approve a new deal.

A lot of attention is on the customs union plan, put forward by veteran MP Ken Clarke. A customs union involves mutual agreement by both sides not to impose tariffs or import taxes on products coming from the other party. If MPs supported this route – and then voted through the withdrawal agreement as well, then some on the EU side have suggested the UK could still leave by May 22nd, with some changes agreed to the political declaration in the meantime. But it is not clear whether Theresa May could live with this, as it would likely split the Conservative party.

On Monday afternoon, the Labor Party announced that one of the proposals it would support is the so-called Common Market 2.0, in which the UK would remain in a customs unions with the EU and also, via EFTA membership, in the single market. ( This is similar to what used to be called the Norway plus option). This option is seen as having a chance of success tonight given Labor support.

  1. For Ireland, in the short term, the key issue is to avoid a crash-out no-deal Brexit. We some plan to emerge from UK politics which allows for a managed exit –including the standstill transition period – or a long extension to avoid the immediate imposition of checks and tariffs at borders.

For the longer term, the closer the trading links between the EU and the UK the better. UK membership of a customs union with the EU would help Irish companies trading with the UK as they would not face tariffs, customs checks would be more straightforward and complex rules of origin checks would not be needed.

However, Irish/UK trade could still face border delays due to regulatory and other checks. Crucially, customs union membership would not, on its own, solve the Irish Border problem, as border checks would still be needed, particularly in areas like animal, food and product safety.

So if MPs vote for the customs union, it won’t remove the need for the backstop, the insurance in the withdrawal agreement that there will be no hard border.

The Common Market 2.0 plan – involving UK membership of the single market and a customs union– would solve the Irish Border issue, even if some local measures might still be required, depending on the detail. For Irish businesses trading with the UK in any form, it would be a good outcome.

  1. If the UK is to push for a long extension of the Article 50 process, it will still have to pass the withdrawal agreement, presumably also noting that it is seeking changes in the accompanying political declaration, the non-binding document which charts the intended future course. The EU side has said the withdrawal agreement itself will not be reopened. So, for example, if the MPs were to support a future customs union, the EU would be happy to sign up to this and negotiate the details in the future. It might not require any extension in the May 22nd exit date. Other options – a general election, a confirmatory vote or a longer parliament procedure would require an extension. An extension would be a good result for Ireland as it would likely take a no-deal off the table.
  2. May has hinted that she might put the withdrawal agreement to a vote for the fourth time, without adding on any of the options from the indicative vote. Were MPs to pass it at the fourth time of asking, then the UK would leave with a deal on May 22nd. As the UK would then enter a standstill transition period lasting until at least the end of 2020, and the backstop would be in place, this would be a good outcome for Ireland. However if parliament refuses to pass the vote and the prime minister refuses to accept whatever it votes for, we are back in a standstill. It is also possible that none of the options gets support tonight. These outcomes would raise the prospect of a no-deal, the worst outcome for us. Another option being mentioned is a vote between a soft Brexit option – if supported tonight – and the current withdrawal agreement.
  3. Remember that the EU leaders have to sign up to an extension of Article 50. If a general election were called in the UK, then the EU leaders would be likely to agree to give time for it to happen. The same is likely for a second referendum, providing the question was clear. EU leaders would fear the outcome of either an election or a vote but would find it hard to say no. The final option for the UK is to revoke Article 50, which it can do unilaterally.
  4. When will the UK leave? If the UK parliament can’t agree on any way forward, the issue will go to an EU summit on April 10th. This could lead to a no-deal exit on April 12th, or at a later date agreed by EU leaders and the UK. However, any delay in a no-deal Brexit would likely only be for a few weeks.

– If the House of Commons approves the withdrawal agreement as it now stands, the UK is due to leave on May 22nd. This could also happen if the deal is amended in a way which can be quickly signed off in the political declaration – like customs union membership.

– If the UK asks for a longer extension on Article 50 – for an election, a referendum or some clear process on what it plans to do – then it is up to the EU leaders. There are suggestions the EU would push the date to the end of the year or beyond. However, many EU leaders want the UK out as soon as possible. The leaders have made clear that they will not grant more time unless given a clear reason to do so.

– If the UK revokes Article 50, then its delay is postponed indefinitely.