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March 14, 2019

A very meaningless vote

For anyone in search of a deep understanding of the Brexit process, yesterday’s events in the House of Commons are best forgotten. The UK Parliament pretended to take no-deal off the table in a series of votes that have no legal effect. We are particularly astounded by inferences that a narrow majority against a no-deal Brexit would eventually translate into a positive vote by parliament to do whatever it takes to secure a solution. For as long as MPs still cling on to their first preferences, this will not happen. We should not assume that everyone who objects to no-deal agrees on what to do next.

The odd results of yesterday’s chaos is that it has increased the probability of May’s deal passing in the final week of the month. What has emerged yesterday is that there will another interim meaningful vote - number three - next week. And we think there could be MV4 in the following and final week before the originally scheduled Brexit date. The purpose of MV3 is get the DUP and members of the European Research Group on board. There were some signs yesterday of a further softening in the position of both the DUP and some of the pro-Brexit MPs. This may not be enough for a majority - but it could get May a step closer towards a position where she can co-opt Labour MPs into accepting the deal.

The absence of evidence for a Commons majority for any kind of deal acceptable to the EU is inducing rapid shift of sentiment on the EU side. During a debate in Strasbourg about next week’s European Council in Brussels, leading MEPs from across the political spectrum warned that the prospect that a extension of Art. 50 until late May would transform the EU elections campaign into a sterile and debilitating pan-European Brexit debate. The brutality of the language reflected a rare genuine collective anger directed both at the Tories and Labour. The European elections must not be “hijacked by the British disaster”, said the usually soft-spoken Manfred Weber. “Prolong this negotiation, to do what?” asked Michel Barnier, who opened the Brexit debate. The negotiation was over, and if the UK asks for an extension of Art. 50 it must come with the UK saying what such an extension would be for.

While the political impact on this shift in sentiment in Brussels should not be underestimated, the question remains how it will affect the decision EU leaders will take when they meet in Brussels next week. There is so far no sign of a consensus emerging, and with the deepening sense of chaos in Westminster, the decision about what kind of extension to grant – which must be unanimous – will almost certainly be taken at the Council itself. At this stage, the head of states and government will each be groping for the best course of action themselves, and many will come into the Council meeting without a firm conviction about what to do. 

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