Whilst UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s unpopular Brexit deal has once again failed to win support in Britain’s Parliament, what lies ahead could be far more impactful than yet another of May’s customary defeats. Over the next days, the UK Parliament will vote on whether it will reject under any condition, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union under a so-called “no deal”/WTO rules scenario. If a WTO Brexit scenario is rejected outright, a following vote to delay the scheduled (29 March of this year) withdrawal of Britain from the European Union will take place. If this vote wins, millions of people will feel as though they’ve been stabbed in the back, betrayed and spat upon.
This is not just a dangerous situation because it smacks of elites changing the rules of the game while the players are still on the pitch, but it likewise opens the floodgates for mass protests, the likes of which have played out (often violently) on the streets of France for months. The situation in France is grim, it is dire and is chaotic. It is not something that any country would wish upon itself. And yet by playing fast and loose with the date of Brexit, the British political class is running a risk of seeing French style chaos on the streets of Britain.
There are a few things that might prohibit such a deterioration of the peace for Britain. First of all, none of the major pan-UK parties (with the exception of the less and less relevant Liberal Democrats) want Britain to still be in the European Union in May of this year. This is because it would mean that British parties would fight in the EU parliamentary elections – elections that would almost certainly be won by a Nigel Farage led Brexit Party. This would be an embarrassment for every other British party and could also potentially tip the scales in a new EU parliament towards populism as many other EU nations are also set to vote for either left-populist or right-populist parties in May. In this sense, the Conservatives, Labour and Brussels itself do not want to see UK parties contest May’s EU elections.
Then there is another alternative. Britain could of course hold a general election, but it would seem that contrary to what the besieged Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn says, a UK general election would also allow for the very strong possibility of Farage’s Brexit party to tip the scales in the British House of Commons. This itself is because none of the other major parties in Britain are advocating for the complete style of Brexit that Farage continues to advocate. If however, the Conservatives moved away from May’s deal and towards a Farage style WTO Brexit, Labour could easily be wiped out in the event of an ideological alliance between the Conservatives and independent minded Brexit advocates.
In this sense, the best way to curtail the likelihood of civil unrest is for parliament to reject any extension of a negotiation period that the EU itself has said has long been over in all but name. Instead of trying to salvage a clearly broken relationship between Britain and the EU, it would be better for British policy markers to begin planning on how to make a WTO Brexit work. This is why, instead of delaying what the people voted for, the UK should busily engage itself in working on new free trade agreements with non-EU powers, most especially China.