Today is the set date in the Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union, the United Kingdom is allowed formally to leave the European Union (Brexit).

However, the British Parliament (House of Commons) has to give her approval to Theresa May's deal. The British Prime minister has even offered to resign, if the House of Commons would vote for her deal. Nevertheless, the House of Commons has shown many 'NO' 's even to options discussed and proposed within the Parliament.


May's deal: the Withdrawal Agreement

Theresa May's deal was agreed with the EU last November. Its aim, broadly, was to allow the UK to formally leave today, while abiding by EU rules for a further 21-month "implementation period". This gives the UK and EU breathing space while they hammer out the details of a future relationship. If lawmakers agree May's deal, it would mean the UK leaving the EU on May 22 and entering the implementation period. But if May can't pass her deal, then another way forward needs to be found.

Norway Plus: Common Market 2.0

Norway Plus -- or Common Market 2.0, as some are now calling it -- is a very soft Brexit, in which the UK formally leaves the EU but remains very closely aligned to it. The "plus" part of this plan would be a customs arrangement between the UK and the EU that avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Under this plan, the UK would apply to join the European Free Trade Association, which would allow the UK to trade with the EU and other EFTA nations (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) on similar terms to now. Via EFTA, the UK would also continue its membership of the European Economic Area, meaning it would retain access to the EU's single market. Under EFTA rules, the UK can still -- in theory at least -- strike its own trade deals while more or less maintaining trading ties with the EU. It will also result in minimal disruption to its world-class services industry. The UK would also leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in all areas other than those which affect the EEA.

But as a member of the single market, the UK would have to abide by the four freedoms of movement: Goods, services, capital and people. That last one is a problem for Brexiteers, as it means the UK would not have full control over the number of people coming through its borders. The UK would have to continue making huge contributions to the EU, something that Brexiteers promised would end. Brexiteers don't like this Norway plus option because the UK would still need to abide to EU-law without any political participation in the decision-making process in Brussels.

And the unique customs arrangement envisioned by Norway Plus is unprecedented among EFTA membership, so there's no guarantee that it could be achieved, meaning the Irish border question is not necessarily answered. Also a separate customs union with the European Union will not be possible conform existing EFTA-regulations. And who says the United Kingdom will not act the same as it did within the EU in the past (Norway is afraid the UK will act as a kind of 'enfant terrible' within EFTA). So, while it looks a very clever plan, Norway Plus runs into many of the same problems as every other plan.

Canada-style free trade agreement

This hard Brexit option would lead to a free trade agreement between the UK and the European Union like Canada and the EU have agreed upon a few years ago: the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). CETA eliminates 98% of tariffs between Europe and Canada on certain goods and offers has access to much of the EU services market. The agreement is essentially a looser trading arrangement which removes many barriers between Europe and Canada. However, because Canada is not a member of the Customs Union or Single Market, customs checks still exist. The harder Brexiteers who want a looser relationship with Europe favor this plan, claiming that solutions will inevitably be found to deal with the Irish border question.

Soft Brexit: Permanent customs union

The main opposition Labour Party has faced wide criticism for not presenting a coherent Brexit plan. One thing we do know, however, is that it favors a permanent customs union with the EU, in which the UK has a say in future trade deals. A customs union is essentially a free-trade agreement between a number of countries who agree to share common external tariffs. That means no customs checks at borders. But because the EU is one large trading bloc, it also has a unified external trading policy, which EU member states can influence, but is ultimately run out of Brussels. This soft Brexit option might potentially get the most votes in favour in the British parliament, because the Irish border question does not come into play here and Labour and Conservative MP's will be able to negotiate a positive result here. This result might show similarities with May's deal, which contains a "backstop" plan of a single customs territory to handle the Irish border situation. Moreover there is no clear mechanism in which the UK could have a say in future EU trade deals.

No deal or May's deal?

The House of Commons has said 'NO' with a large majority to No Deal a few weeks ago. After all, Brexit may not mean Brexit, but no deal really does mean no deal. The UK would leave the EU on April 12 and become a third-party nation. It would trade with the world on terms set by the World Trade Organization and would fall out of all EU institutions. This would affect everything from medical supplies to air travel. For those agitating for a softer Brexit, and for the government, it is tactically sensible to allow the Commons to have a final say on a no-deal Brexit. For the softer Brexit types, it means they can rule out what they see as the worst-case scenario once and for all. For the government, it gives May the chance to prove to her hardliners that they are a minority in parliament and if they want to see Brexit delivered, it's her deal or something much worse. In the meantime May continues to try to get her deal through Parliament, by playing the card of her final option: if the Parliament votes in favour of the deal, May has promised to resign as Prime Minister.

Revoke Article 50

At the time of writing, it's unclear if the option of a holding second referendum will be discussed. Supporters of another public vote say that it's not a Brexit outcome, but a matter of process, and should be debated separately on its own merit.

However, in the eyes of many, a second referendum is the only way the UK could credibly revoke Article 50, the process of leaving the EU, and remain in the bloc on its current terms.

A big show of support for revoking Article 50 would be helpful for advocates of a second referendum. Whether they will get it or not is another issue entirely.

For more information and news, please check the Peace Palace Library Special about Brexit

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Librarian's choice

A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection

Brexit new titles: Selective bibliography (also in Peace Palace Library catalogue)

Relevant PPL-keywords for further research

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