Britain’s plan to leave the European Union (EU) has been complicated by a lack of accord between key negotiators.
Time is running out to prevent Brexit happening without an agreement in place on future relations. Economists warn that exiting without a deal will impact the entire global economy, yet British politicians continue to fight among themselves about what form Brexit should take. The EU’s main leaders also appear to be divided about what type of arrangement they would facilitate, with some showing sympathy and others drawing a harder line by ruling out any compromises.
Here’s a list of the key players influencing the talks at this crunch phase.
- In June 2016, British citizens voted in a referendum to leave the EU, in a move now known as Brexit.
- The referendum vote, however, was close and members of parliament fiercely debated the pros and cons of leaving the European Union and what form it should take, delaying its eventuality.
- Originally scheduled for early 2019, Brexit has been delayed at least twice already, and is now slated for the end of January 2020.
Boris Johnson became prime minister after three versions of Theresa May's Brexit agreement were rejected by parliament. The former mayor of London, Johnson has been a vocal proponent of a quick Brexit, "deal or no deal."
In August 2019 newly appointed Prime Minister Johnson met the Queen to request that parliament be suspended from mid-September until mid-October in order to push through a Brexit, where she approved. This was seen as a ploy to stop opposing Members of Parliament (MPs) from blocking a chaotic exit from the EU and some even called it a coup. Britain's supreme court, however, unanimously deemed this and unlawful move and quickly reconvened parliament.
Despite opposition, his hard-line stance forced a new general election in December of 2019 where he and his party were re-elected by a wider margin than many expected. The new Brexit deadline under Johnson has been set for January 31, 2020, three and a half years after the initial referendum was held.
The former British prime minister was humiliated at the beginning of the year when her Withdrawal Agreement, put together after months of tense negotiations with the EU, was rejected in parliament by 230 votes, the greatest defeat of a sitting government in the U.K.'s democratic history.
May, previously a "Remainer," went on to survive a vote of no confidence and now faces a difficult task to put a more palatable deal on the table before Britain leaves the EU March 29. Her peers want substantial changes, especially when it comes to the contentious Irish backstop issue, but EU leaders say they won’t budge any further. She has stated that a second referendum would do "irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics." Despite her efforts, she was succeeded by Boris Johnson on July 24, 2019.
May’s efforts to ensure a smooth exit were impacted by Brexit ministers criticizing her negotiating skills. In November 2018, Barclay, a former banking executive at Barclays Plc, was appointed the third Brexit secretary in just six months after David Davis and Dominic Raab both quit the role.
Barclay has been loyal to May, backing her Withdrawal Agreement and claiming that it still remains the most popular option in parliament, even though it was defeated. To get MPs on board, he warned that further rejections of May’s proposals would lead to a no-deal Brexit or no Brexit at all.
Not all members of the center-right Conservative party are supportive of their elected leader. Rees-Mogg leads the European Research Group, an organization of Eurosceptics that contributed to the record defeat of May’s deal. He has consistently spoken out against her Brexit plans.
Rees-Mogg has refused to back alternative proposals from May, unless assurances are given that the EU's backstop proposal that Northern Ireland would stay in the single market and the customs union will be removed. He also called for the prime minister to prevent a cross-party attempt to avoid a no-deal Brexit from becoming law.
Corbyn was the leader of the center-left Labour party, the country’s biggest opposition party. Although he has been critical of the EU in the past, Corbyn wants Britain to "remain and reform."
His main goal in parliament was to prevent a Tory Brexit with May's deal. His party put forward its own "soft Brexit" deal for a vote and supported a second referendum as it was rejected. He wanted May to rule out the chances of a no-deal Brexit happening and requested extensions to Britain’s EU membership when no Brexit deal could be agreed on by early March 2019.
Nine MPs quit the Labor party in February 2019 to form the Independent Group. They blamed Corbyn's failure to address antisemitism in the party and present a coherent Brexit policy. Corbyn and his party experienced a humiliating defeat in the December 2019 general election, which re-affirmed Boris Johnson and his hardline Brexit approach.
Labor MP Yvette Cooper has been seen as a possible successor to Corbyn and some have called her "the real leader of the opposition." The former cabinet minister has tabled an amendment with the Conservative party's Oliver Letwin that Labor is expected to back. The amendment rules out the possibility of Britain leaving the EU with no deal in place and gives parliament the chance to vote on whether the Article 50 process should be extended.
Cooper wrote in an op-ed:
I’m also fed up with the prime minister and her cabinet, who know we need to rule out no deal but are too weak to do so, and instead are standing back in the hope that parliament will do the job for them. That’s not leadership.
As the European Commission’s chief negotiator, Barnier has been given authority to negotiate for the bloc. The former French foreign minister has said the Irish backstop provision in the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be time-limited and will not be renegotiated.
He has warned that there is a high risk of Britain leaving without a deal and said delaying Brexit would require the approval of EU leaders.
Juncker is president of the European Commission, which is the politically independent executive arm of the EU. He occasionally makes interventions, but mostly leaves Brexit to Barnier.
After May’s proposal was defeated, the former prime minister of Luxembourg said: “The risk of a disorderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom has increased." He has said the EU will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement in response to May's demands and that extending the Article 50 negotiating period is something no one in Europe would oppose.
Tusk is the president of the European Council and his job involves representing the heads of states or government collectively on foreign and security issues and setting the EU's general political direction and priorities with the Commission.
He has been campaigning for a future relationship that is "as close and special as possible," and has said that the U.K. should call off Brexit as the prime minister’s deal was rejected and “no-one wants no deal.” The former prime minister of Poland has said the "rational solution" in the current situation is delaying Brexit.
Verhofstadt is the Brexit coordinator for the elected European Parliament. He is responsible for representing its position during the negotiations and reporting back. Although the role of the European Parliament in Brexit negotiations is limited, it will vote on the Withdrawal Agreement with the Council.
As chancellor of Europe’s largest economy, Germany, Merkel has some clout in Brexit negotiations. The leader of the center-right Christian Democrat Union is big on European stability and views the U.K. as a key part of that.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, she spoke about her concerns regarding a rise in nationalist thinking. Merkel doesn’t often talk about Brexit, and when she does, it’s usually to say how all parties must work on a deal to avoid a no-deal scenario, even if that means compromising a bit. She said negotiators need to be creative to figure out how to maintain the integrity of the EU single market while avoiding placing any checkpoints along the Irish border.