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Angst and anger reign on the Brexit day that wasn't

Illustration of a double-decker bus crashing into BREXIT in large letters.
Copyright Adam Maida
Copyright Adam Maida
By Alexander Smith with NBC News World News
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Friday was meant to be the day when, for better or worse, Britain's Brexit mayhem yielded at least some definite answers.


LONDON — Friday was meant to be the day when Britain's Brexit mayhem finally reached a moment of certainty.

For exactly two years, March 29, 2019, has been seared into British minds as he date their country would finally leave the European Union.

Instead, that milestone has been postponed. British lawmakers continue to disagree and dither, failing time and again to reach an agreement on how exactly this divorce should work. In Europe — the other side of this dysfunctional relationship — the mood among many is bleak.

On Friday, having suffered two crushing defeats already, Prime Minister Theresa May is set to ask Parliament for a third time to support at least part of the plan she has negotiated with the E.U.

She will ask them to support just the withdrawal agreement element of her plan, which sets out the terms of divorce. If it passes, the new Brexit deadline will be May 22. If not, there will be an extension until April 12 that could morph into a lengthy delay, raising the possibility of a general election, a second referendum or even no Brexit at all.

Unless there is some sort of intervention, Britain will crash out of Europe without a deal — something many consider a nightmare scenario.

Each day in London seems to bring a new vote or an increasingly complex proposal, championed by its backers as a possible key to the deadlock. So far none have succeeded.

Larissa Brunner, a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, said many in the E.U.'s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, were "completely dismayed at the political process in the U.K."

"They have no idea how this is going to end. Many have given up making predictions," she said.

The E.U. announced this week that it believes it is "increasingly likely" the U.K. will fail to reach any deal at all.

"They don't trust the U.K. political class not to screw up," Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think tank, tweeted Thursday.

'A lose-lose situation'

A "no-deal Brexit" — as this outcome is known — does have its supporters. However most experts predict it would be a hammer blow for the British economy, and even threaten to destabilize some of the basic aspects of day-to-day life.

Before the U.K. voted to leave in June 2016, it was bound to the E.U. by more than four decades of shared laws and regulations. The relationship has become so close that Britain and the other 27 member states operate almost like a single country in many respects.

Crashing out without a deal would see these myriad agreements torn up overnight.

Some of the predictions are terrifying: shortages of food, medicine, and basic supplies such as toilet paper; suggestions farmers might be forced to slaughter and burn 10 million lambs because they can no longer sell them to Europe; and miles of tailbacks as haulage trucks encounter their first port checks for years.

The military has put 3,500 troops on standby and it already has a crisis team operating out of a subterranean nuclear bunker below the Ministry of Defense.

Perhaps more alarmingly, a no-deal Brexit could mean some form what is known as a "hard border" between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Irish Republic, which is a separate country and will remain in the E.U. after Brexit.

At the moment the border is all but invisible. Many fear a physical boundary would become a target for sectarian agitators, risking a return to violence rarely seen since The Troubles, a 30-year conflict that plagued the U.K. until 1998.

Protesters on either side have been camped outside Parliament for weeks.
Protesters on either side have been camped outside Parliament for weeks.Peter Nicholls

Hard-line Brexit supporters have argued that under this scenario the U.K. would be within its rights not to pay its divorce bill of around 39 billion pounds (around $51 billion). Legal experts say the E.U. could respond by simply suing the U.K. in an international court.

In all, the British economy could be 9 percent weaker over 15 years under no-deal than if it had stayed in the U.K., according to the government's own estimates.

The damaging ripples would likely not stop there.

No-deal could have dire implications for the economy of the Irish Republic, whose second largest export market is the U.K. In France, Belgium and the Netherlands, it would mean devoting large amounts of money, resources and personnel to check all goods coming from Britain.

"A no-deal Brexit would be a lose-lose situation for everybody," said Brunner at the European Policy Centre.


'Now we need a yes'

So much damage, psychologically at least, has already been done. Brexit has paralyzed large aspects of public and private life, carving unprecedented rifts within the major political parties, saturating news media, and sparking bitter arguments between family and friends the country over.

Many analysts feel that a general election — reshuffling the U.K.'s knife-edge parliamentary arithmetic — is now a real possibility in the coming months.

Accompanying the dismay emanating from Europe, there has also been a deep sense of frustration at what they see as Britain's chronic indecision.

E.U. negotiators spent years thrashing out a deal with May and her team, forging a hard-fought compromise that both parties found acceptable.

Aedis publishing house in Lempdes, France, has already begun printing maps showing Britain outside the E.U.
Aedis publishing house in Lempdes, France, has already begun printing maps showing Britain outside the E.U.Thierry Zoccolan

As well as the withdrawal agreement being voted on Friday, it also contains a short, non-binding document known as the political declaration, which sets out an outline of the future relationship.


As far as Europe is concerned, it has done its part. But British lawmakers have rejected May's deal twice — crushing it in the heaviest and fourth heaviest defeats in parliamentary history. On Wednesday they also rejected eight other alternatives ranging from an extreme no-deal Brexit to canceling Brexit altogether.

"We counted eight 'nos' last night," an exasperated European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters they next day. "Now we need a yes on the way forward."

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