This week is a turning point for Britain and Brexit. No, really! We've heard this before, but now it looks to be real.
That's because the British Parliament is scheduled for some crucial votes that will determine
- whether the United Kingdom leaves the European Union with Prime Minister Theresa May's much-maligned withdrawal agreement,
- whether it rejects leaving the EU without a deal,
- or whether it votes to postpone Brexit.
Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal — unless Parliament votes to postpone.
Here's what you need to know about the week ahead.
What's the first big vote this week?
On Tuesday, Parliament will vote on the prime minister's withdrawal agreement. For now, it seems likely to go down to defeat, as it did in January.
That's because May has been unable to convince Brussels to change the agreement, which her team negotiated last year, and put in legally binding reassurances that the U.K. will not become trapped in a long-term customs arrangement with the European Union. Remaining inside a customs arrangement would prevent the U.K. from striking new trade deals with other nations.
Some British politicians call this a "Hotel California" Brexit, because, from their perspective, "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave."
British lawmakers have said they want a time limit on — or a unilateral way to leave — a customs arrangement. Brussels has repeatedly refused, because if the U.K. leaves a customs arrangement before it inks a new free-trade agreement with the EU, it would force a return of customs posts on the Irish border. That could provoke violence, given the border's violent political history.
What happens if Parliament votes in favor of May's deal?
Britain's beleaguered prime minister would declare a personal victory and the United Kingdom would enter a transition period until the end of 2020. During this time, the country would remain inside the EU customs union and begin to negotiate a new free-trade agreement with Brussels.
This would be the least disruptive outcome for U.K. and EU businesses, as it would give them more time to prepare for the split. During the transition, EU citizens could also continue to live and work visa-free in the United Kingdom and vice versa.
What if Parliament votes down May's deal?
This is far more likely, given that lawmakers rejected the deal in January by an historic margin of 230 votes.
If the deal again goes down to defeat, May has said she will hold a vote on Wednesday on whether the United Kingdom should walk away from the EU, the world's second-largest economy, with no deal at all.
What's the likelihood Parliament would vote for a "no-deal Brexit"?
That's unlikely. There are a few hard-core "Brexiteer" members of Parliament in May's Conservative Party who support leaving the EU with no deal, and a recent poll showed a majority of the party's rank-and-file members agree. But the great majority of lawmakers, including most Conservative members of Parliament, will vote against a no-deal Brexit because they believe it would be economically damaging and disruptive.
Many products that now trade seamlessly between U.K. and the EU would be expected to face tariffs and inspections when Britain leaves the European Union near the end of this month. Business leaders, who are already appalled at the failure of the British government to resolve Brexit, would be furious if the country crashed out of the EU after two years of negotiations.
What happens if Parliament votes against a no-deal Brexit?
Lawmakers would then vote on Wednesday or Thursday on whether to postpone Brexit, which might be the only choice at that point.
May, who is against a delay, has said Brexit could only be postponed until the end of June, at the latest. Even if Parliament votes for a delay (which does nothing to resolve Brexit), it would require all 27 remaining EU countries to agree. Brussels, which feels as if it's been asked to solve a domestic British political dispute, would want a clear explanation of how granting the U.K. several more months would solve an issue that has paralyzed Britain's political system.
How long is this going to drag out?
Probably for years. Right now, Brussels and London are only arguing over the so-called divorce arrangement, unwinding more than 40 years of economic integration. After they sort out the terms of withdrawal, they will have to negotiate a new free-trade agreement, which typically takes years — and which analysts say will be even more difficult that what we've been witnessing.
How will Prime Minister Theresa May be judged and what's her future?
It depends. In the highly unlikely event that she gets her deal through Parliament, she will get credit for managing, albeit with many missteps, a nearly impossible task. If the U.K. crashes out of the EU with no deal, she'll take a lot of the blame.
A Brexit delay could keep May in office for months longer than expected. She has already survived votes of no confidence by her own party and Parliament as a whole. May has pledged not to lead her party into the next general election, which is scheduled to be held in 2022. Even her many detractors in the party have been reluctant to dump her in the midst of Brexit negotiations.
For all of the prime minister's weaknesses as a politician — her repetition of talking points has earned her the nickname "the Maybot" — she has proven remarkably durable. Many have predicted her political demise and so far been proved wrong. After May called a snap election in 2017 and led her party to disastrous results, George Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer whom May had sacked, called her a "dead woman walking." That was 21 months ago.
Producer Samuel Alwyine-Mosely contributed to this report.