Jan 11, 2019

A no-deal Brexit would be a geopolitical crisis

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street on Jan. . Photo: Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The House of Commons will vote on Jan. 15 on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal agreement with the EU. If the agreement fails to gain support — a likely outcome — the specter of a no-deal Brexit will loom as the March 29 deadline approaches.

Why it matters: The prospect of a no-deal Brexit is alarming for both economic and geopolitical reasons. It would propel the U.K. out of the EU’s single market, roiling the U.K.’s economy and causing trade chaos with the EU. The Bank of England predicts an immediate 8% drop in British GDP under this scenario.

Moreover, Britain would be in complete political turmoil and its international standing would take a heavy toll. A no-deal Brexit would suck up all political and strategic energy and attention in London at a time when Europe is facing rising geopolitical threats from Russia and China.

Unfortunately for May, Washington is no help here. President Trump has taken the pro-Brexiteers’ side. He believes that a hard Brexit, or even a no-deal Brexit, would be beneficial for U.S. trade with Britain. Trump has on several occasions also undermined May’s efforts.

  • Ironically, one of the original motivations for Brexit was to pursue a closer relationship with countries such as the U.S. Under Trump, however, the special relationship is in shambles.

Yes, but: There might still be some wiggle room for last minute deal-making, though the margin for error is small. The U.K. could, for instance, try to secure an extension of the negotiations from the EU, but this would require unanimity from the 27 EU members. Other possible options include a new last-minute vote in Parliament, new elections or even a second Brexit referendum.

The bottom line: With so much at stake, the U.K. might decide to pull the plug on the entire Brexit enterprise to avoid the costs of exiting the EU. Barring such an outcome, British politicians could at least pursue the deal that May has reached, since it would limit the damage done by ensuring an orderly Brexit and paving the way for the next phase of discussing the future U.K.–EU relationship.

Erik Brattberg is director of the Europe Program and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

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