11 Mar 2019

Why this is the most crucial week of the Brexit process

7:39 pm on 11 March 2019

By ABC Europe bureau chief Samantha Hawley

If you had lost interest in Brexit and its complicated nuances and trade jargon, now is the time to tune back in.

Pro-Brexit activists demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on February 27.

Pro-Brexit activists demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on February 27. Photo: AFP

The United Kingdom is heading into the most crucial week of the Brexit process yet.

It does feel like a frenzy of activity in the House of Commons in recent months has culminated in discussions ending in exactly the same place in which they started.

But this week promises to be much more momentous.


Theresa May's deal with Brussels will be voted on for a second time on Tuesday evening. For weeks the British Prime Minister has promised changes - but so far negotiations with Europe have yielded nothing.

If it fails to pass, as most people expect, MPs will be given a second vote scheduled for the following day to decide whether the UK should leave the European Union with no deal.

This would be the "cliff edge" option, and if passed would mean the UK leaves the EU on March 29 with no framework in place.

This dramatic step - supported by the fiercest Brexiteers - could tank the economy.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves from the rear of 10 Downing Street in London on February 14, 2019 ahead of a vote on amendments to the Brexit withdrawal bill. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)

UK Prime Minister Theresa May Photo: AFP

If MPs vote against that, a third vote to delay Brexit until the end of June will be taken.

There will be decisions made this week and they are worthy of our attention.

But still, no-one is sure exactly how it will all play out.

Analysts and commentators all have a view, but as one political expert put it while visiting the ABC London bureau last week: "Who the f*** really knows?"

How much time?

If Brexit is delayed, the question is what will more time solve?

The UK has already had almost three years to sort out how it leaves the European bloc or "take back control", that being the slogan the "leave" supporters campaigned on.

It raises the question of whether it would be the only delay, or whether it would just be the first of a string of extensions.

One school of thought is that one delay will lead to another and eventually a second referendum.

It's not beyond the realms of possibility that the end position is no Brexit at all, although there would be a mighty fight against that.

Predictions range from a short one month to two years.

Remember, European parliamentary elections are scheduled for the end of May, and it would be embarrassing for both sides if the UK had to field candidates for a body it wants no part of.

The question

Pro-leave supporters gather near the Houses of Parliament in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019.

Photo: AP / Alastair Grant

Of course, the main problem stems from the original referendum, in which voters were asked a question so simplistic in its nature they could have had no real idea what they were voting for and what lay ahead.

The "backstop", "WTO rules" and the "Customs Union" are terms that would never have entered their minds at the ballot box.

As former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said during a visit to London last week, the devil is always in the detail.

"A question has been asked, 'Do you want to leave the European Union?' without any detail or understanding as to what that might involve," Mr Turnbull said during an interview with the BBC Politics Live program.

Mr Turnbull knows too well how important a referendum question can be. He led the Yes campaign for the failed Australian republic referendum in 1999.

The increasingly frustrated Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, also summed it up nicely.

"I've been wondering what the special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely," he said during a press conference in February, with the accompanying tweet of the statement gaining more than 92,000 likes.

Former British prime minister David Cameron gambled with the electorate in asking a question he thought he knew the answer to. He was wrong, and now the divorce process is messy and complicated.

Brexit is one of the most important events in the UK's long history.

Will the UK be leaving the European Union at 11pm on 29 March?

Who knows? But tune in, as things are about to get very interesting.


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