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Brexit: Is the end nigh?

With the clock ticking inexorably closer to the date for the UK's official departure from the EU, the UK parliament starts to vote on options. DW's Rob Mudge takes a look at the key Brexit scenarios.

There are just under three weeks left before the United Kingdom is due to officially leave the European Union on March 29. Depending on your point of view, none of the permutations are particularly palatable.

So what can we expect in Parliament this week?

March 12: Tuesday

Prime Minister Theresa May made a last-minute trip to Strasbourg for a meeting with EU leaders and returned, claiming she had "secured legal changes," to the divorce deal in the form of three documents: a joint instrument, a joint statement and a unilateral declaration, addressing the issue of the Irish backstop. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned "It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all."

May then consulted with the head of Northern Ireland's DUP party which props up her government, and the European Research Group (ERG) of hard-line Brexiteers in her own party. 

A statement from the Attorney General on the legal force of the new assurances was to be made in the morning, ahead of  a second meaningful vote on the deal. May suffered a heavy defeat in the first vote in January with MPs siding 432 to 202 against her plan for a smooth Brexit and the 21-month transition period to negotiate a free trade agreement.

If her revised deal passes, MPs would then get down to the nitty-gritty of the required legislation to implement it.

March 13: Wednesday

However, if the Commons rejects the proposal again, the prime minister has promised to table a second motion for debate and a vote on the UK leaving the EU without a deal. In this scenario, there would be no transition period, and consumers, business and public institutions would need to cope immediately with post-Brexit changes. The issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, a key bone of contention, would remain unresolved. The border would become an external frontier for the EU with the likelihood of customs and immigration controls.

Read moreDo EU and UK face Brexit — or the Last Judgment?

March 14: Thursday

If that scenario is also voted down, May's third prong of her pledge would be to introduce a motion to seek a short extension of the two-year negotiating period specified in Article 50 (the legal and political process of withdrawing from the EU). If the Commons approves this motion, the prime minister would then ask the European Council for an extension until no later than the end of June 2019. A longer extension would raise questions about the UK's participation (or not) in the European Parliamentary elections in May, as the new group of MEPs are due to sit in early July. 

March 21-22:

EU leaders convene for a summit where they may thrash out a last-minute deal or agree to extend Article 50 to avoid a no-deal disruption.

March 25-29:

If a deal can be clinched, the UK Parliament could vote on it, possibly on March 26. The European Parliament could then ratify it in that week.

Flowchart visualizing the next steps in the Brexit process depending on the outcome of the March 12 vote on Theresa May's revised Brexit plans

Major renegotiation

The government could opt to substantially negotiate a new deal, which could not be done overnight. One such scenario is the so-called Norway model, which would involve the UK becoming a member of the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Area. Norway is a member of both, along with Liechtenstein and Iceland. As a member of both bodies, the UK would retain full access to the single market, thus allowing barrier-free trade with the EU and single market access for services, which account for around 80 percent of the UK economy.

Read more: In a spin: Brexit spells trouble for UK vinyl industry

A second referendum

The elephant in the room. Technically, there are two options. One would be to hold another legally nonbinding and advisory referendum like the one in 2016, for which the question would have to be determined. The other is a binding referendum, the result of which would automatically take effect. In this instance, the question on the ballot paper — on a deal or to remain in the EU — is set out in the legislation. But even if it were to pass, the referendum couldn't happen immediately. Instead, there would have to be a statutory referendum period before the vote. Most experts say the minimum time required to hold a second vote is around five months.

General election

Theresa May could decide she's had enough and call an early election as a way to end the deadlock. Having said that, she can't simply call it. As in 2017, she would have to ask MPs to vote for an early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which determines that elections are only supposed to happen every five years, and it would require a two-thirds majority.

Another no-confidence vote

The opposition Labour Party could table such a motion at any time. If a majority of MPs back the motion, it triggers a 14-day countdown. If during that time the government cannot win a confidence vote, an early election is called.

No Brexit

The European Court of Justice has ruled that the UK can legally and unilaterally revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit. Given the current government's pro-Brexit stance, it's unlikely this would happen without a further referendum or a change of government.

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