Europe Politics

Confused about Brexit? Here's a guide to what's happening next

Key Points
  • Brexit took a distinctly different course on Tuesday.
  • May appeared to bow to pressure from pro-Remain members of her own government and party, by offering Parliament a vote on whether to leave the EU without a deal, or whether the U.K.'s departure from the EU on March 29 should be delayed for a "limited" amount of time.
  • These extra votes will only happen if Parliament rejects her amended Brexit deal for a second time on March 12.

Brexit continues to throw up twists and turns at every given opportunity and as the official departure date of March 29 approaches we're still no closer to establishing what the future relationship between the U.K. and EU will be.

In fact, Brexit is still as confusing as it was back in June 2016 when a majority of the British public voted to leave the 28-member trading bloc. After more than two years of negotiations, the U.K. and EU finally reached a Brexit deal last November, only for it to be rejected by British lawmakers in January.

When Members of Parliament (MPs) get another chance to vote on Prime Minister Theresa May's deal by March 12, it's quite possible they'll reject it again. However, they've already been offered more votes on whether the U.K. should exit the EU without a deal, or delay the departure.

Confused? You're not alone. CNBC takes a look at the next key themes and dates for Brexit.

What just happened?

Brexit took a distinctly different course on Tuesday. May appeared to bow to pressure from pro-Remain members of her own government and party, by offering Parliament a vote on whether to leave the EU without a deal, or whether the U.K.'s departure from the EU on March 29 should be delayed for a "limited" amount of time. But these new options would only become available if Parliament chooses for a second time on March 12 to reject May's proposed agreement — including any potential revisions that have been made to the earlier version.

May had previously ruled out extending what's known as "Article 50," which oversees the Brexit departure process, so the concession to MPs has been characterized in the British media as a humiliating climbdown. Pro-Brexit MPs are reportedly furious at the prospect of a delayed departure and see it as a way others are trying to stop Brexit altogether.

On Wednesday evening, MPs voted on a number of amendments to May's Brexit strategy. Amendments are motions put forward by lawmakers suggesting changes to the government's policy and process.

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The opposition Labour party tabled an amendment calling on fellow MPs to support its alternative Brexit plan which would see the U.K. remain in a customs union with the EU among other closer links. British lawmakers voted 323-240 against the proposal, however. After the defeat, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the party will back another Brexit referendum. The party is expected to table an amendment proposing a second referendum within the next few weeks.

MPs also rejected an amendment tabled by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Welsh party Plaid Cymru suggesting that the U.K. should not leave the EU without a deal "under any circumstances," but there was overwhelming support for Labour MP Yvette Cooper's amendment guaranteeing Theresa May's commitment to offer MPs a vote on no-deal or a delay to Brexit in mid-March.

Amendment votes are not legally binding but they can provide a useful indication of how Parliament might vote on any binding legislation, and they can they can influence the government's choice of actions.

Amendments can be powerful tools; the high level of support for Yvette Cooper's amendment calling for a vote on a delay to the Brexit departure date in the event that a deal isn't in place before March 29 — together with a fresh threat of cabinet resignations — spurred May's decision earlier this week to offer lawmakers a chance to vote in mid-March on these options.

March 12: MPs are to have what's known as a "meaningful vote" on Theresa May's current Brexit deal by March 12. This will be the second such vote after a large majority of lawmakers voted against her deal in January.

The EU refused to renegotiate the deal but offered reassurances over the "Irish backstop" — a measure to prevent a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland if the U.K. and EU fail to agree a trade deal in a 21-month transition period after Brexit.

Critics say the deal has barely changed and is again unlikely to be approved. If it is approved, however, the U.K. will leave on March 29 with May's deal.

March 13: If May's Brexit deal fails to win approval from a majority of the U.K.'s MPs, they will get a vote on March 13 on whether they support a "no-deal" Brexit. A "no deal" would entail an abrupt departure from the bloc, no 21-month transition period and a reversion to WTO trading rules.

An anit-Brexit demonstrator reacts to the result of the vote on the Brexit deal in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

This option is unpopular with most MPs and businesses as it would entail much economic uncertainty. The government issued a warning this week that the economy would be up to 9 percent weaker over the next 15 years, under this scenario, than it would have otherwise been.

The vote on March 13 means that the U.K. would only leave without a deal on March 29 "if there is explicit consent in the House (of Commons) for that outcome," May told Parliament on Tuesday.

March 14: If the House of Commons (the U.K.'s lower house of Parliament) votes against May's Brexit deal and also against leaving without a deal, then on March 14 lawmakers will get to vote on whether the U.K. should seek "a short, limited extension to Article 50."

If Parliament approves the extension it would need to be approved and granted by the EU. Just how long an extension could be granted for is unknown, but experts say a three-month period is likely although this is by no means certain given European Parliament elections start on May 23.

Some analysts believe an amended departure date could be extended further, however, despite the parliamentary elections.

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"One can expect to hear diplomats saying an extension beyond end June would not be possible. But the costs of 'no deal' are sufficiently large to make the costs of dealing with this issue look like a mere inconvenience, and it would not be rational to go through with a 'no deal' on the basis of that inconvenience alone," Malcolm Barr, a J.P.Morgan economist, said in a note Wednesday.

If Parliament rejects an extension on March 14, the U.K. will leave the EU without a deal — because it would have already rejected May's Brexit deal in the "meaningful vote" due by March 12.

March 29: To leave or not to leave? Depending on what happens in the mid-March votes, the U.K. may or may not leave the EU on March 29 and the original "Brexit Day" date could be relegated to a footnote in history.