The twists and turns of the United Kingdom’s anticipated exit from the European Union have all been leading to March 29, when Britain is scheduled to depart from the EU.
Tuesday, Parliament delivered a resounding defeat of Prime Minister Teresa May’s latest withdrawal terms, voting 391-242 against a deal she had negotiated and re-negotiated with European authorities.
Wednesday, Parliament will vote on if the UK should leave the EU without an agreement — a “no-deal” Brexit. If that is defeated, lawmakers will vote Thursday on if they should delay Brexit, a move that also requires EU approval.
So what could change next with Brexit? Why has this process been so drawn-out and difficult? What are the obstacles preventing Parliament from agreeing on an orderly departure from their counterparts on the continent? Could Brexit be delayed? How does Ireland factor in?
And what exactly is a “no-deal” Brexit?
Here’s a breakdown on what has happened and what could happen with Britain’s separation from the EU.
What has happened
On June 23, 2016, citizens in the United Kingdom voted in a popular referendum to decide if the country would leave the EU. Narrowly, the “leave” choice won, and in the ensuing 2 1/2 years, British officials have been working to shape the terms of that move.
There are several moving parts to a departure from the European bloc and rules surrounding issues like immigration, labor, tourism, and trade are all in flux. The relationship between Northern Ireland — part of the UK — and Ireland also plays a role. More on that shortly.
May has negotiated multiple broad arrangements with the European Union that have failed to pass the House of Commons, including Tuesday’s defeated deal. A vote on a previous deal in January carried an historic 230-vote margin of defeat.
Now, her ability to negotiate the course of Brexit has mostly been handed to Parliament, who will determine the course by its votes this week.
What could happen: “No-deal” Brexit
Economists and businesses fear a “no-deal” Brexit would hammer the economy as tariffs and other trade barriers go up between Britain and the EU, its biggest trading partner.
In the short term, there could be gridlock at British ports and shortages of fresh produce. In the long run, the government says a "no-deal" scenario would leave the economy 6 to 9 percent smaller over 15 years as opposed to remaining in the EU.
Last month, Parliament passed a non-binding amendment ruling out a "no-deal" Brexit, and it is unlikely they will support it now. May said lawmakers would be free to follow their consciences rather than party lines when they consider the question Wednesday.
What could happen: Delay
If lawmakers give leaving the EU without an agreement a thumbs down, they could seek more time. The vote scheduled for Thursday is on asking the EU to delay Brexit day by up to three months.
This option is likely to prove popular, since politicians on both sides of the Brexit debate fear time is running out to secure an orderly withdrawal by March 29.
Extending the timeframe for Brexit would require approval from all 27 remaining EU member countries. They have an opportunity to grant such a request at a March 21-22 summit in Brussels. But the rest of the EU is reluctant to postpone Brexit beyond the late May elections for the EU’s legislature, the European Parliament.
The EU said Tuesday that Britain needs to provide ‘‘a credible justification’’ for any delay.
What could happen: A new referendum
Anti-Brexit campaigners haven’t abandoned efforts to secure a new referendum on whether to remain in the EU. The government opposes the idea, which at the moment also lacks majority support in Parliament.
However, the political calculus could change if the paralysis drags on. The opposition Labour Party has said it would support a second referendum if other options were exhausted.
A key obstacle: The Irish border
The issue of a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, received scant attention during the 2016 Brexit referendum. But it has proven to be a major stumbling block in Britain’s quest for a divorce deal.
It’s extremely difficult to resolve due to the tangled history tying Northern Ireland to the UK despite its cultural and geographic ties to the Irish republic. Brexit forces the issue because once Britain leaves the bloc, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will be the only land border between the EU and the UK.
The border has been open and unguarded for 20 years since the Good Friday agreement ended the armed conflict in Northern Ireland, but that status will be much more difficult to maintain once Britain is no longer part of the EU. A host of new trade rules and tariffs are likely to apply, along with possible vehicle checks.
That could mean a ‘‘hard border’’ is put in place, potentially reigniting old passions and leading to violence.
Then there’s the possibility of a “backstop.”
The backstop, proposed in the twice-rejected Theresa May-EU withdrawal deal, says if no other solution is found, Britain will remain in a customs union with the EU in order to keep the Irish border open.
Opposition to the backstop from pro-Brexit British lawmakers is the main reason the deal has been defeated in Parliament. May’s political allies from Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, also objected because the backstop treated Northern Ireland differently from other parts of the UK.
To sum up, the problems stemming from Brexit won’t be instantly solved regardless of how Parliament votes Wednesday and Thursday. Lawmakers and the British public remain split between backers of a clean break from the EU and those who favor continuing a close relationship through a post-Brexit trade deal or by reversing the June 2016 decision to leave.