CLodagh Kilcoyne / REUTERS An old sign remains from the days of a hard border in front of a disused customs hut on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland in Carrickcarnon, Ireland, December 2018.

How Theresa May’s Brexit Deal Collapsed

The Return of the Irish Question

British Prime Minister Theresa May had hoped that the third time would do the trick. After failing twice to get her withdrawal agreement with the EU through Parliament, she was gearing up for a fresh attempt last week, until she was blocked by the Speaker of the House of Commons and by the European Council. The Speaker declared that the British government could not put substantively the same motion before Parliament twice in the same legislative session. The Council had refused to modify the withdrawal agreement, which made the Speaker’s decision unavoidable, and it later imposed unexpectedly firm terms on May’s request for an extension. She had requested a short extension to conclude by June 30, knowing that her government could not now meet its schedued exit date of March 29.

May’s premiership is now hanging by a thread. Her three-pronged strategy of blackmail, bribery, and betrayal has collapsed. The blackmail had involved running down the clock to force MPs to choose between her deal and no deal (for which the United Kingdom is not prepared). The European Council, however, has changed that game. Under the extension agreed by the Council, the Commons must ratify the existing withdrawal agreement (provided the Speaker allows the government to put it to the House again) no later than April 12. If it does not, then the United Kingdom must choose between leaving without a withdrawal agreement, revoking the request to withdraw from the EU, and accepting a much longer extension of the negotiations. The latter possibility comes with a sting:  the United Kingdom would have to participate in the elections to the European Parliament scheduled for May. Such elections would inevitably approximate a fresh referendum on remaining in or leaving the EU. 

On top of blackmail, May has tried bribery. To win support for the withdrawal agreement from the small Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, upon which her government’s parliamentary majority depends, discussions began that implied future spending increases for Northern Ireland. Conservative

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