When will Brexit actually take place?

Background current

Roland Sturm

Prof. Dr. Roland Sturm is professor for German and comparative political science, European studies and political economy at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg.

Interview with Prof. Dr. Roland Sturm

Since the referendum in June 2016, British politicians have been arguing over the path that should lead the country out of the European Union. Even after the originally binding exit date, which was scheduled for March 29, 2019, has been postponed, it remains to be seen how things will actually continue.

Partial view of the Houses of Parliament with the Union Flag, the national flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (& copy picture-alliance, chrome orange)

Current background: Journalists have long described the Brexit negotiations as a "never-ending story". How realistic do you think it is that Great Britain will actually leave the EU in the coming months?

Prof. Roland Sturm: That is a very speculative question. At the moment, the British Prime Minister Theresa May is working flat out to somehow push through Brexit. The question is, of course, whether it will actually succeed in getting enough MPs from the ranks of its Conservatives and the Northern Irish Protestant DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) on its side. And I can't predict that.

The official Brexit date should actually be March 29, 2019. May last wanted to gain time from Brussels until June 30, 2019 to find a solution as to how she can still get the exit through parliament. At the end of last week, the EU has in principle granted a postponement until May 22, 2019 - but only if the British House of Commons still approves the treaty negotiated by May with the EU by March 29, 2019. Otherwise, the extension is only valid until April 12th. How does it go from here?

If the exit is pushed too far back, there will be problems with the European elections, which start on May 23rd. May will try in the coming days to get enough internal party opponents and DUP people to their side. It is questionable whether it will be able to bring the result of the negotiations with the EU to a vote again in the House of Commons. If May's negotiated solution fails, it is possible that the House of Commons will take the initiative and a kind of "test vote" on different "solution models" will take place.

Wouldn't it be easier for May to get the opposition Labor Party on your side?

Labor will not go along with this because they simply do not want May to succeed. The Labor leadership is betting on new elections, large parts of the party in parliament prefer a second referendum ("people’s vote").

The Brexit agreement negotiated with the EU by May on behalf of the British government has already failed twice in the British Parliament. According to the Speaker of Parliament, John Bercow, it is not possible to put the same motion to the vote a third time unchanged. How could May still be successful?

The EU is unlikely to make further concessions. There were considerations that the Queen might close Parliament. Then May could simply submit the application again. But the Queen will probably not go along with such nonsense. May simply has to submit a new application. At the moment there are two documents relating to Brexit, the application to leave and the political declaration ("Political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom"). The latter is intended to regulate the future relationship between the EU and Great Britain at least vaguely. The two documents could be merged into a new document, then a new motion would be put to the vote - at least that is the logic of the proponents of such a solution. I don't know if that's really enough. Because, according to the speaker, the new document must be substantially different. Nothing is clearly regulated in this regard.

What consequences would it have for the EU parliamentary elections if the Brexit date is postponed to a date after June 30, 2019?

I don't know whether the European Union will go along with that. If the EU agrees here, it will certainly only be if the exit is postponed until the end of the budget period in 2020. But some British ministers would never go along with that. You would be leaving May's cabinet. In turn, the head of government will probably hardly want that. She already has enough problems.

How do you rate the course of the Brexit negotiations so far and the implementation? Who is to blame for the failure so far?

It is clear to the British press that May made strategic mistakes. The general problem is that the Conservatives have been divided on the EU issue since Maastricht 1992. The Brexit referendum has exacerbated this split. I doubt whether it could have been better negotiated from the perspective of Great Britain, as some conservatives believe. Nor will it work, as some in London are trying to make the EU the culprit. But the search for a culprit in the British mass media brings to light new alleged culprits time and again: most recently, for example, the Speaker of the British House of Commons, John Bercow. It is assumed that he is not concerned with legal concerns, but in truth only with preventing Brexit.

How is May's balance sheet in view of the various defeats in the vote?

Where do you want to take stock? Tactically, she made mistakes. Right from the start she defined too many red lines and did not speak to the opposition. Now everyone is saying that the solution should actually be found with the opposition - but the fronts are now too hardened. Another mistake was the parliamentary elections in 2017, of course. It wasn't necessary at all - May had a good majority.

What are May's options for action?

As I said, it is very unlikely that it will try to get a majority with the help of the opposition. She'll talk to the Tories and the DUP. May has categorically ruled out other possible courses of action, such as a second exit referendum. Another option would be to resign. But May won't do that. She believes she has an historic mission to get Britain out of the EU.

The so-called backstop regulation is a point of conflict. What could a possible solution look like here?

The backstop is just an emergency solution that should never come into effect. The point is that Northern Ireland remains in the single market in any case. You need alternatives to the backstop. In the upcoming negotiations between London and Brussels, a solution should be found how a Brexit can go without new border posts. Brexit advocates in the ranks of the conservatives envision a technical solution here. For example, the imported and exported goods should be given electronic chips in order to record imports and exports without border controls. There is simply no such technical solution. The plan is not well thought out. What a solution could look like that will also be accepted by the EU opponents among the conservatives is an open question. Because on the one hand they do not want Northern Ireland to stay in the EU and on the other hand they are in favor of an open border.

The interview was conducted on Wednesday, March 20, 2019 and authorized on Monday, March 25, 2019.

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