EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker addresses Members of European Parliament on Brexit at the European Parliament in Brussels on January 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker addresses Members of European Parliament on Brexit at the European Parliament in Brussels on January 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

In a long and impassioned debate on January 29, 2019, the United Kingdom’s House of Commons voted to advise the government not to leave the European Union without a deal, and advised Prime Minister Theresa May to return to Brussels to renegotiate “legally binding amendments” to the Irish backstop portion of the Brexit deal. Is there any method to this madness?

Formally, the government carried the day, and most of the amendments to the prime minister’s motion in support of her existing agreement were rejected, some by substantial majorities. Among the amendments rejected were Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s amendment calling for extensive discussion of the options for future agreement with the European Union and the Scottish National Party’s call for withdrawal of the article 50 notice.

But there is now a majority in the House of Commons that rejects a no-deal Brexit, and in her closing remarks, May recognized that fact. However, she repeated her mantra that the best way to avoid no deal is to have a deal. In welcoming the resolution calling on her to return to Brussels to renegotiate the backstop to her deal, she said that Parliament has now stated clearly the kind of deal that it wants, rather than what it does not want.

On the same day, The Guardian reported that French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as senior EU officials, had already informed May that renegotiation of the November 25, 2018, Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration would not be possible. These were all matters to which May had given her agreement. May will return to Brussels soon to attempt to reopen negotiations, arguing that Parliament has given her a stronger hand. It is unclear if EU leaders will view matters in this light.

Perhaps the only genuinely positive outcome of Tuesday’s debate is that all leaders in the House of Commons, including Jeremy Corbyn, have agreed to enter talks with the prime minister on the way forward, and to begin discussion on the type of future relationship they want with the European Union. On the other hand, leaders from both Scotland and Wales spoke of their deep disappointment that the government continued to be blind to the impact of Brexit on their countries, and suggested strongly that any attempt to restrict the Irish backstop would have negative implications for the Good Friday settlement and peace in Northern Ireland.

The vote that called for Britain to remain in the European Union was resoundingly defeated and, at this point, it seems as if the major parties are not interested in discussing a second referendum. Those who wished to reverse the vote to leave the European Union may not have had their hopes completely extinguished, but for the moment they are sorely disappointed.

Parliamentarians sent May back to the negotiating table — where the European Union may not even join her — a scant 59 days away from the March 29, 2019, leave date. Today, Brexit, and possibly a hard one, looks inevitable.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • Armand de Mestral has been a CIGI senior fellow since 2014. An expert in international economic law, Armand is professor emeritus and Jean Monnet Chair in the Law of International Economic Integration at McGill University.