With 10 weeks to go before the United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union, it’s unclear how—or whether—the U.K. will do it. The resounding defeat of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s exit deal by the British Parliament on Tuesday “means there has to be a serious rethinking of the deal,” said Mai’a Cross, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at Northeastern whose research centers on European foreign and security policy.
“In my view, there really is no version of the deal that will satisfy a majority of people,” Cross said. “This is a really, really difficult situation that doesn’t have an outcome that will satisfy all the various concerns over Brexit.”
As a result of the defeat, May faced, and survived, a no-confidence vote on Wednesday.
What comes after that, however, is anyone’s guess.
Cross, who is also the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science, said it’s likely that the British government will ask for a delay on the March 29 deadline to leave the EU.
“At a minimum, it’s an effort to buy more time so that May or a new government will be able to hash out a deal,” she said.
The problem is that there’s no clear mandate on the original deal that would signal how to make a better one, Cross said.
“The reasons for the rejection of the current version of the deal are all over the map,” she said. “In some cases, people want a sharper break from the EU. In other cases, people are worried the deal went too far and would prefer that the U.K. more strongly stays within the framework of the EU. There’s no real way out of this that’s going to satisfy people.”
It’s possible, then, that U.K. leaders ditch the entire idea of Brexit altogether and remain in the EU, Cross said.
The decision to leave was born out of a June 2016 referendum, in which citizens of the U.K. narrowly voted to withdraw from the European Union. (The vote was so narrow, Cross said, and so heavily influenced by an older generation of Britons who voted to leave, that if the referendum were to be held again now it’s likely the decision would go the other way “just based on the number of people who have died since June 2016.”)
The U.K. would be on solid legal ground if it chose to scrap its withdrawal, Cross said. The European Court of Justice ruled in December that the U.K. can cancel Brexit without the permission of the other EU member-countries.
However, in order to be on solid political ground, Cross said the U.K. would likely have to hold another referendum on whether to stay or go.
“If they do that, it’s quite likely the vote would be to stay in the EU,” she said.
But would Europe take the British back? Cross said yes.
“The feeling in Europe is that they don’t want to lose the British,” she said.
The worst-case scenario, Cross said, is what’s being called a “no-deal Brexit,” in which the U.K. would withdraw from the EU without any plan or transition period.
In this scenario, British officials would have to “scramble” to figure out the country’s trade relationship with Europe and the rest of the world, Cross said. It would mean uncertainty over how to address the U.K.’s only land border, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which comes with a violent history.
Reinstating customs borders at U.K. ports—borders which were, as part of the EU, relatively free-flowing—could cause huge delays in the movement of goods and services among the U.K. and the rest of Europe, Cross said.
The likelihood of a hard exit is lower than the likelihood of the U.K. and the EU coming to some kind of agreement, Cross said, because the potential chaos of a hard exit looms large.
A no-deal Brexit means “there would essentially be a vacuum in terms of rules,” Cross said. “It would dramatically harm the British economy, it would introduce uncertainty on the political level, the economic level, even the social level; it would be so, so harmful on all fronts for the U.K. to crash out of the EU.”