The Quixotic Effort to Get a Better Brexit Deal

Some British lawmakers want the power to stop the U.K. from leaving the EU without a trade agreement—but it may not be so simple.

The sun sets behind the Houses of Parliament in London on October 16, 2017.
The sun sets behind the Houses of Parliament in London on October 16, 2017.  (Hannah McKay / Reuters )

Updated on October 18 at 10:23 a.m. ET
After last week’s announcement that Brexit negotiations have reached a “disturbing” deadlock, paired with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s admission that the British government is preparing for “every eventuality … including a no-deal scenario,” apprehension over the possibility of the U.K. leaving the European Union without a trade deal have heightened—so much so, in fact, that some British lawmakers are trying to prevent it from ever happening.

As the Guardian reports, parliamentarians from multiple parties, including members of the ruling Conservative party, Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and the Greens, are pushing to make any Brexit deal subject to parliamentary approval. This would, conceivably, give them the authority to vote down a deal they don’t like—namely one of the type described as a “cliff edge,” in which the U.K. leaves the EU without first securing a trade deal and instead becomes subject to trade barriers.

The idea is being offered as one of 300 proposed amendments to the EU withdrawal bill that sets the terms of Brexit. The deluge of amendments prompted the British government to postpone debate on the bill this week, but even if parliamentarians are granted the power to veto any Brexit deal they deem unacceptable, it wouldn’t be enough to slow down or stop Brexit in its tracks. Mark Elliott, a professor of public law at the University of Cambridge, told me the U.K.’s ability to prevent its impending exit from the bloc ended when it triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, formally beginning its two-year process of leaving the EU. In other words, British law isn’t the only thing that counts in the process—EU law also decides.

“As a matter of European Law, the default position is that the U.K. will leave the EU at the end of March 2019,” Elliott said, adding that any act or amendment by the U.K. stating otherwise “wouldn’t in itself make a difference at the EU level. We would still leave.”

Under EU law, once a member state triggers Article 50, it has exactly two years to complete negotiations with the EU and reach an agreement, allowing for an extension period only if the bloc “unanimously decides to extend this period.” After two years, the member state would cease to have access to the EU’s single market and would no longer be bound to its treaties. Article 50 makes no mention of whether a member state can unilaterally halt or rescind its declaration. U.K. law is similarly vague. Although the Supreme Court in 2017 presumed in a ruling on a separate case that “notice under article 50 ... cannot be given in qualified or conditional terms and that, once given, it cannot be withdrawn,” it did rule on that specific question.

Still, such a move is unlikely—May has previously stated that she “does not intend” to reverse Brexit. Regardless, Elliott said the threat by some lawmakers to veto an agreement is likely aimed less at preventing Brexit than it is at applying pressure to get the British government to change its negotiating strategy. “Clearly if parliament ended up voting against whatever deal was agreed between the government and the EU, that might be politically significant,” he said. “The prospect of that happening might be significant now in terms of how that changes the government’s thinking.”

At least one of the lawmakers behind the amendment appears to think so. “There are enough sensible people in the House of Commons to say this cannot happen, we cannot damage our country in this way,” Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show of the possibility of the U.K. facing certain trade barriers in the event of no deal, adding: “The government will get the message, there will be a deal.”