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Today, MPs in the House of Commons are debating and will be voting on a series of 'Indicative Votes' (similar to the ones they voted on last week). Among these are debates about possible softer versions of Brexit, such as a 'Common Market 2.0'.

However, surely Parliament is missing something here? Discussions about hard vs soft Brexit or a Common Market 2.0 relate to the UK's future trading relationship with the EU. However, the Brexit negotiations with the EU have not even reached that stage yet. Currently, the only thing that has been negotiated is a 'Withdrawal Agreement', which lays out the conditions of the UK's withdrawal from the Union. Trade negotiations will come afterwards.

So, surely it is entirely pointless to be debating and voting on what trade arrangement the UK wants, when they haven't even reached that stage of negotiations?

The EU has made their position clear that, regardless of what sort of trade agreement ends up being made, the UK will still have to accept the terms of the WA, before trade negotiations can begin. So, even if the UK Parliament votes in favor of a 'Common Market 2.0', they will still have to accept and sign the Withdrawal agreement (aka Theresa May's deal), that is being pushed by the EU.

So, is it not the case that many of these 'alternative' Brexit plans are not in fact alternatives at all, since May's deal will still have to be signed?

It seems to me that the choices facing the UK are as follows:

  1. Accept the Withdrawal agreement that the EU wants and move on to trade negotiations.
  2. Leave with no deal (hard Brexit).
  3. Revoke article 50 (i.e. no Brexit).
  4. Push the EU to change the Withdrawal agreement (although the EU has absolutely ruled this out).

What is the point in debating anything else right now?

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Two things have to be approved by the UK parliament - the Withdrawal Agreement and the accompanying Political Declaration. Many of these potential changes would be to the contents of the political declaration, a document detailing the intentions for the coming negotiations.

There is also a more political motivation, in that many MPs see these votes as a chance for parliament to have some power on the government's strategy, and will only approve the deal if the negotiations are likely to be taken in a direction that satisfies them. Many would rather either revoke article 50 or leave with no deal (depending on their views on brexit) than have the negotiations taken in a direction they dislike, therefore they will not approve the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration without some sort of guarantee that the negotiations will follow the path they desire.

As a third point, some MPs believe that these changes will negate the need for some elements of the withdrawal agreement that they find objectionable, and will only approve a version with those elements removed. (they could of course attempt to seek these changes in the next phase, thus making those sections of the withdrawal agreement redundant but it would appear that some people are not willing to take that risk.)

  • I think you make some good points. But still, it seems like an awful lot of time spent arguing over details of the desired intention of negotiations with another party, which haven't even begun yet. It seems that May's days are numbered, so those negotiations are most likely going to be under a different UK Government anyway. – Time4Tea Apr 1 at 15:36
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    This answer also helps explain the "Blindfold Brexit" comments from the lead up to Friday's meaningful vote #3 that were never really expanded on in the coverage I read. – Jontia Apr 1 at 15:45
  • @Time4Tea: yes but the EU is asking the UK for their vision for way forward; they want to know this by April 10... or else no-deal Brexit happens on the 12th. – Fizz Apr 1 at 16:21
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    Two things have to be approved by the UK parliament - this answer could be improved by explaining why both have to be approved and what happens if one isn't. – Bobson Apr 1 at 16:51
  • @time4tea like a chess game, the players can think a few moves ahead. The indicative votes determine what the next PM will have to do - which determines who it might be. And it's far from given that she will be removed now having survived so far. Remember that she won a leadership contest a few months ago. – pjc50 Apr 1 at 16:56
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It should be noted that the indicative votes aren't principally a mechanism for negotiating with the European Council. They are a mechanism for MPs to negotiate with each other and with the Government (i.e. the executive).

Indeed Amendment C, supporting continued membership of the EU customs union is sufficiently mistrustful of the latter to take the following form

That this House instructs the Government to:

  1. ensure that any Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration negotiated with the EU must include, as a minimum, a commitment to negotiate a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU;

  2. enshrine this objective in primary legislation.

The second clause is an attempt to get this provision into statue as UK domestic law. That doesn't mean much to the EU, but would heavily bind the hands of an executive reporting to the current parliament when it comes to negotiating a future relationship, regardless of who was leading it.

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So, surely it is entirely pointless to be debating and voting on what trade arrangement the UK wants, when they haven't even reached that stage of negotiations?

So, is it not the case that many of these 'alternative' Brexit plans are not in fact alternatives at all, since May's deal will still have to be signed?

No, the UK can put forward a different proposal to the EU. Indeed, if the UK is willing to change its red lines then different deals may be possible. Such red lines already affect the withdrawal agreement.

In particular, staying in the customs union changes the possibilities because there a no (or at least fewer) problems with the Ireland-Northern Ireland border. Specifically, there'd be no need for a backstop.

The EU has actually called for the UK to put forward new proposals:

Guardian, March 7: France’s Europe minister, Nathalie Loiseau, has urged Britain to offer fresh proposals to end the Brexit impasse, warning that uncertainty surrounding the UK’s departure from the EU is affecting its neighbours.

The EU has also kept the option of a longer extension open, though this will involve the UK taking part in EU elections.

FT, March 31: The official added that if Britain wanted to pursue Brexit — rather than revoke the Article 50 exit process altogether — there were only two options: “Either the UK asks for an extension beyond May 22, in which case it must participate in the European Parliament elections, or it must adopt the withdrawal agreement.”

And in the spirit of keeping things light, April Fools' Day 2020 may be the new Brexit day if the UK wishes to extend.

Guardian, March 27The EU has pencilled in April Fools’ Day 2020 as a leading option for Britain’s first day outside the bloc, should the UK government ask Brussels for a lengthy extension of article 50 in three weeks’ time, it can be revealed.

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Push the EU to change the Withdrawal agreement (although the EU has absolutely ruled this out).

That isn't quite true.

The EU is willing to reopen the Withdrawal agreement if the parameters on the UK side change.

The current Withdrawal agreement was based off of certain parameters on the UK side (some dictated by DUP, some dictated by hard-Brexit conservative positions, etc). If those parameters change significantly, the EU is willing to reopen negotiations.

"We want a better deal" with no change in parameters is the case where the EU has ruled out reopening the Withdrawal agreement.

For example, if the UK agreed that the backstop changed from "indefinite customs union between the UK and EU" to "customs border between the rest of the UK and NI, customs union between EU and NI", the EU would probably accept that, as it was one of the floated proposals. That option was ruled out by the DUP and certain members of the Conservative party. (Ireland has stated that a customs border between I and NI is not an option in any deal between the EU and UK, and they have veto rights and are willing to use it.)

  • Just a point of clarity, there can't be a customs border between NI and the UK as NI is a part of the UK. There could be a border between NI and GB, but that would be politically difficult, and would quite likely end with NI becoming part of RoI. – Ross Thompson Apr 2 at 16:55
  • @RossThompson That is merely technically correct. But note that if you are right, and the customs border between NI and GB results in NI not being part of the UK, then there is actually a customs border between NI and the UK. (also you forgot about Gibralter; there would have to be a customs border between NI and it, or one between Gibralter and the rest of the UK) – Yakk Apr 2 at 17:25
  • I think that in that case, "NI leaves the UK" is a bigger headline than "customs border between NI and UK". And I didn't forget about Gibraltar so much as not consider it relevant as it's not part of the UK (it's a British Overseas Territory), there are no international treaties requiring a soft border between Spain and Gibraltar, and Spain hasn't expressed an interest in vetoing deals that don't include a soft border. I'm not sure why there would need to be a customs border between it and the UK rather than Spain... – Ross Thompson Apr 2 at 17:44
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The "future trading relationship" applies from (currently) April the 14th. There are two huge questions which need to be solved in the next two weeks:

  • Customs: will there be customs borders at Calais and across Ireland? What VAT arrangements apply across these borders?

  • freedom of movement: will those UK nationals resident in EU and vice versa be able to continue living there, or will they have to apply for permanent residence (which may not be granted!). This is part of the Withdrawal Agreement: https://ec.europa.eu/unitedkingdom/services/your-rights/Brexit_en

We cannot suspend trade. We must trade, on some terms. We have to decide what those terms will be after Brexit day. It matters quite a lot whether we are in the Common Market on that day.

The agreement covers a whole number of other things, too: https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-8453

The £39bn final settlement payment. EURATOM, without which supplies of radiological materials for cancer treatment will be interrupted. European Arrest Warrant. Agriculture and movement of agricultural products. Extra-territorial bits of the UK (Gibraltar, Cyprus bases).

Now, what happens if there is a majority for Common Market 2.0 but not Revoke? The likely outcome is a immediate demand for a long extension to renegotiate the agreement, since that would move the UK "red lines". This may also assemble a majority for a change of PM, by resignation or no-confidence vote.

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    Clearly, there isn't going to be time under any scenario to conclude the trade negotiation phase within 2 weeks. So, even if May's deal is approved, there will still most likely have to be a long extension to allow for the trade negotiations. There will be many fine details to hammer out, which the UK Government/Parliament can't decide on unilaterally. – Time4Tea Apr 1 at 15:32
  • No, May's deal is a trade negotiation. In the unlikely event of it being accepted it would apply from the 14th and dramatically change the way we trade. – pjc50 Apr 1 at 16:21
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    @alephzero ah is this the "will hurt them more than it will hurt us" delusion? – pjc50 Apr 1 at 16:52
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    @pjc50 Basically. I wouldn't say the EU wouldn't take an economic hit, but 1) we're significantly larger and can take the hit better, and 2) unlike the UK, the various EU countries have already been taking worst-case preparations just in case the UK really does insist on driving their double-decker off the cliff. The only reason we're still negotiating is because we really don't want the UK to drive off that cliff because that outcome won't be good for anyone, but it's going to have to be up to the passengers to wrest control of the steering wheel from the driver and hit the brakes... – Shadur Apr 1 at 17:59
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    @pjc50 dramatically change the way we trade. isn't that only the case after the transition period and depending on the negotiations during that period? That's been my understanding but I haven't read or followed the deal to the finest detail. – JJJ Apr 1 at 18:44
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The indicative votes are part of a strange political moment. If things were operating normally, the government would have the political support of its party members and coalition partners, so the Conservatives and DUP would support May's deal, Labour and others would oppose it, and it would go through.

Instead, the Conservative party has a serious internal schism, in which they can't agree on a Brexit policy. They can only agree on the expediency of remaining in power. And their majority in parliament is very slim even with the DUP's support. Therefore, they can't seal the deal, but they're not sure what to do instead.

As a result, there's a big question of how long the government will stand. The DUP and the nationalist "hard Brexiters" are willing to support the current government but only as long as it doesn't compromise too much. In fact, it looks like even May's deal may be too much of a compromise for the DUP, and they may be supporting the government only as long as the deal isn't approved. On the other side, some centrist Conservatives may be supporting the government only as long as a "no deal" scenario is avoided. It's unclear how long May will be able to maintain her current balancing act of keeping all the Conservatives together in supporting her. Labour wants a general election, as the opposition party normally would, but what is unusual is that there could be a real possibility for Labour to win a no confidence motion if any of the Conservative factions got fed up. (I won't go into the factions within the opposition parties, which are also quite complicated, but less relevant to your question.)

The indicative votes are orchestrated by centrist Conservatives, who got Labour's support for this because they're doing something that doesn't really agree with May's government. The centrist Conservatives wanted the indicative votes as a way of figuring out what kind of collaborative approaches to Brexit could be feasible based on different compromises between different factions across parliament. Meanwhile, Labour accepted these as an opportunity to illustrate that May's government has been highly non-collaborative so far.

This is the context of the indicative votes. The question isn't just whether the withdrawal agreement should be approved as written. The question is which political factions are going to be in control if it is approved, and what ideology they will support.

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