UK Heads Toward New Brexit Vote, Possibly New Leader

Britain’s Prime Minster Theresa May speaks at an EU election campaign event in Bristol, England, on Friday. (Toby Melville/Pool via AP)

(CN) – The United Kingdom’s great debate over Brexit is headed toward a dramatic new phase in the coming weeks after British Prime Minister Theresa May said she will step down if the House of Commons shoots down her divorce deal with the European Union one more time.

In June, the House of Commons is expected to vote for a fourth time on a deal May struck with European negotiators that paves the way for Great Britain to leave the EU on terms that benefit both sides.

But her deal has been rejected three times by a deeply divided Parliament and the prospects are dim for it to be approved in June. Her opponents are split between those who see the deal as either keeping Britain too closely aligned to the EU or not closely enough.

On Thursday, British media reported that May has agreed to resign if her deal is rejected again. On the same day, Boris Johnson, a divisive pro-Brexit Tory and former foreign secretary, announced that he will seek to replace May. He is considered one of the favorites to take over No. 10 Downing Street. Other big name contenders are expected to join a leadership contest.

Adding to May’s troubles, on Friday talks with the opposition Labour Party collapsed without an agreement. For weeks, May’s government had been in talks with Labour to find common ground in order to get her Brexit deal through Parliament.

The differences between the two parties were too great. Labour has been pushing to keep Britain closely tied to the EU or to remain within the bloc. The Tories, meanwhile, are keen on removing Britain from EU rules and regulations in order to enable Britain to engage in more global trade.

“We have been unable to bridge important policy gaps between us,” said Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, in a letter to May announcing the breakdown of talks. “Even more crucially, the increasing weakness and instability of your government means there cannot be confidence in securing whatever might be agreed between us.”

May blamed Labour for the failure to find common ground.

“We haven’t been able to overcome the fact that there isn’t a common position in Labour about whether they want to deliver Brexit or hold a second referendum which could reverse it,” she said.

As it stands now, Britain has until Oct. 31 to pass the EU withdrawal agreement or face crashing out of the EU without a deal, which is widely considered undesirable because it could cause major economic disruptions. Britain could ask the EU to give it more time to figure out how and whether it wants to leave the EU.

In 2016, about 52 percent of UK voters chose to leave the EU in a referendum. But since then, divisions have hardened over whether leaving the EU is the best option.

Those in favor of Brexit say Britain will be able to halt immigration and discard EU rules and regulations that they argue hinder British trade, often because they contain tough restrictions and standards, such as on the environment. Also, many Brexit backers feel that membership in the EU weakens Britain’s national identity and forces Britain to prop up weaker European economies.

Those who favor remaining within the EU, however, argue that Britain’s economy and society benefit from being part of the EU’s single market and that there are huge benefits to being able to work, travel and live anywhere in the EU. Large parts of Britain’s financial and commercial sectors favor remaining in the EU. Opponents of Brexit also worry that Britain could see environmental and workers’ rights standards weakened by leaving the EU.    

Britain’s vote to leave the EU has become one of the defining issues in Europe and its outcome will define the EU’s future. Britain is Europe’s second largest economy after Germany and it is a major military force.  

There is a lot of concern among policymakers in Brussels that other countries might be tempted to follow suit and seek to exit the EU. However, Brexit has become a debacle for Britain and anti-EU politicians are now much less likely to talk about leaving the EU.  

The EU is going through a particularly difficult period with many politicians and citizens critical of its policies to tighten national budgets and issue mandates that affect nearly every realm of life and the economy. Many people also view the EU as a wasteful and costly enterprise. 

Making matters worse, Europe was hit very hard by the 2008 financial collapse and many countries are still struggling with high unemployment, stagnant wages and low growth. Europe also has been struck by a series of terrorist attacks and many people feel threatened by large numbers of asylum-seekers who arrive in Europe seeking refuge from war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

Elections are being held next week for the European Parliament and there is the possibility that anti-EU politicians will make strong gains, furthering the bloc’s instability. Britain is taking part in the elections and a new party founded by pro-Brexit politician Nigel Farage is leading in polls.  

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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