Summit a staging post on way to more dangerous negotiations
If MPs reject Brexit deal, Theresa May can expect little immediate help from Brussels
British PM Theresa May gives a press conference after the European Council meeting in Brussels, November 25th. Photograph: Epa/Olivier Hoslet
For an event that should have been a milestone on the road to Brexit, Sunday’s emergency summit in Brussels felt more like a staging post on the way to more dramatic and dangerous negotiations ahead. After months of sniping and wrangling, Theresa May and the other EU leaders moved into strict alignment to warn British MPs that their choice was between this deal and no deal.
But as the British prime minister sets off on a two-week campaign around Britain to sell the merits of the deal, the MPs who will determine its fate don’t believe they have run out of options. Hardline Brexiteers and their allies in the DUP hope that a heavy defeat in the House of Commons will drive May out of Downing Street and see her replaced by a Eurosceptic true believer.
With more than 90 Conservatives threatening to vote against the deal and potential support from Labour MPs evaporating, next month’s vote on the deal appears doomed. May’s options after that could depend on the scale of the defeat and her campaign over the next two weeks is designed to limit the size of the rebellion.
In Brussels on Sunday, she outlined the argument she will make for the deal, presenting it as delivering Brexit while protecting jobs and the economy. She placed a particular stress on what the deal will mean for immigration, the most important issue for many voters who backed leaving the EU.
“Not an emergency brake on free movement or a promise of greater transition controls in the future – but an end to the free movement of people, in full, once and for all. That is what this deal delivers. It will allow us to put in place an immigration system based not on where people come from but on the skills and talents they have to offer,” she said.
May is expected to publish her government’s policy for post-Brexit immigration next week, and her government will also release an assessment of the economic impact of her Brexit deal compared with leaving the EU without a deal.
If MPs reject the deal, May can expect little immediate help from Brussels as events play out at Westminster. Labour will seek to trigger a general election but the Conservatives are likely to win a confidence vote with the support of the DUP.
Brexiteers argue that, if Britain leaves without a deal, the EU will agree to a succession of mini-deals to mitigate the impact on both sides. But there are other rumblings at Westminster, not only about a second referendum but about assembling a cross-party majority for the softest Brexit that would see Britain remain in both the European Economic Area and the customs union.