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Immigration played an important role in the minds of many electors in the June 2016 UK referendum on whether to leave the European Union. Probably the fears that induced many to vote to leave were sufficient to sway that 51.9% majority in favour of Brexit. Those motivated by immigration phobia are as much against the arrival of migrants from Eastern European EU countries as from anywhere else. That the issues raised by Brexit were a lot more complex than imagined by them has become painfully obvious, but one way or another immigration will be affected.

Keeping track of progress, or lack of it, till the 29 March deadline has been tortuous, much of it only really relevant to internal UK politics and the increasingly bitter division of Britain. So this article deals only with the next steps in the countdown to the Government’s self-imposed 29 March deadline to leave the EU. No matter that opinion polls now show that a new referendum would show a different result, for the moment the Government is set on leaving, and leaving by 29 March 2019.

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, having been defeated resoundingly when placing her “Withdrawal Agreement” package before Parliament, there have been frantic attempts to renegotiate what the EU Commission claims to be non-negotiable. For all but the most diehard Brexiteers leaving without an agreement has been likened to jumping off a cliff with dire consequences for the UK economy and great damage for Europe generally. The main sticking point has been the so-called Irish backstop, a mechanism designed to stop there being again a frontier with physical controls between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (stoutly part of the EU).

In the next week there is scheduled to be a Parliamentary vote on 12 March on whether to accept the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement package, as amended by any last minute concession that the Government’s negotiators may succeed in wringing. The Government is likely to fail in this bid, but could win if enough MP’s are scared by the alternative outcome. If it fails, one day later, on 13 March there will be a vote on whether to leave without any agreement – that is to march over the cliff edge. It is more likely that Parliament will baulk at that, but without a clear consensus on the consequences. Assuming they reject that option, on 14 March MP’s will need to vote on whether to extend the Brexit process, even though this is not something which is within their power since it depends also on the decision of the EU. So then Mrs May would be mandated, yet another humiliation, to request an extension to the Article 50 exit procedure. This would require the approval of all the other 27 Member States with dramatic uncertainty to the last minute.

It has become increasingly clear, and equivocally accepted by the British Government, that even if the Prime Minister’s package is accepted on 12 March it is unlikely to achieve all the formal legislative steps by 29 March. Somehow or other that problem could probably be overcome, but what the Government timetable lacks is the option to renounce the Brexit procedure entirely - which is within the power of the United Kingdom, but would cause violent reaction from many of the truculent Brexit leavers. There are also other models for the relationship between the EU and the UK which MP’s are constantly debating, but unless there is either renunciation of the art. 50 Brexit application or agreement of 27 Member States to extend time, that 29 March cliff edge is just three weeks away.

Andrew Colvin