Following the deferral of the "meaningful vote" originally planned for 11 December, and a challenge to the Prime Minister’s leadership of her own party, the first “meaningful vote” on 15 January, was rejected by 432 to 202. This was followed by an unsuccessful motion of ‘no confidence’ in the Government tabled by the Opposition on 16 January. Since then there has been much debate, but little substantive progress towards securing a deal that would have the support of Parliament.
On 29 January the House of Commons backed a proposal to agree the Brexit deal if the Prime Minister could secure changes to the Northern Ireland “backstop”. However, the EU announced immediately that the Withdrawal Agreement, of which the “backstop” is part, was not open for renegotiation within the treaty text (some scope for accompanying assurances in a letter, or equivalent, was left open, though the willingness of Conservative and DUP MPs to accept non-binding assurance is very evident).
So, with fewer than 30 days to go until the UK is scheduled, under the “Article 50” negotiating provisions of the existing treaty, to leave the EU, what can we expect as we move closer towards the 29 March deadline? And will 29 March remain the deadline?
|The Backstop||The ‘backstop’ is the proposed mechanism to satisfy the requirement, agreed by both the UK and the EU, that there will be no ‘hard border’ (ie no intrusive checking of goods or people) between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The arrangement will automatically kick-in if there's no deal at the end of the extended transition. In essence, the ‘backstop’ would mean all of the UK staying in a customs union with the EU, but Northern Ireland also staying part of and fully aligned to the ‘single market’ on all relevant rules, without any scope for divergence.|
|The Meaningful Vote||The “meaningful vote” is the name that has been given to the vote referred to in Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and is the mechanism which ensures that Parliament must approve, or otherwise, the outcome of the negotiations with the EU.|
After a great deal of political activity, including the resignation of some Labour and Conservative MPs from their parties, together now forming the Independent Group in Parliament, the Prime Minister offered the prospect to MPs of an extended “Article 50” negotiating period to the end of June. So, the votes on 27th February gave MPs a further opportunity to secure amendments directing the future process. In particular there was an overwhelming majority (of 482) for an amendment that would guarantee a vote on extending Article 50. The Prime Minister intends to use the period until the next critical dates on 12, 13 and 14 March to continue discussions on a revised “backstop”.
On 26 February the Prime Minister gave the following three commitments to the House of Commons for the following dates:
12 March - a vote on the deal; and if the deal is rejected then,
13 March - a vote on whether the UK should leave the EU without a deal; and if this is rejected then,
14 March - a vote on whether the UK should seek an extension to Article 50 from the EU.
If MPs vote for the deal on 12 March, [and there is support in the House of Lords], there will only be 17 days to 29 March and, more concerningly, ten normal House of Commons working days before 29 March. In this time the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, which will enshrine the Withdrawal Agreement into UK law and will provide for the transition period, would need to be introduced and debated in both Houses. Additionally, assuming that the Bill receives Royal Assent, the Withdrawal Agreement must also be ratified as required by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. Both of these must happen before the UK leaves the EU on 29 March. At each stage there is opportunity for MPs unhappy with the deal to seek to influence the final outcome.
In the European Parliament there will be a similar ratification process. The Withdrawal Agreement must be presented to the EU Parliament and a simple majority reached. It is then passed to the European Council and 20 out of the 27 countries, representing at least 65% of the population, must agree to it (known as a “super-qualified majority”).
Due to time pressures for both sides to complete the necessary legal processes, it is likely that a short extension would be granted to Article 50. Once the legal processes have been completed, the transition period with the second phase of negotiations, over the future economic partnership, can start.
If there is support on 13 March for the UK to leave the EU without a deal, we will be in a no deal Brexit situation, and will cease to be an EU member state at 11pm on 29 March without a transition period. In this case it is likely that negotiations with the EU would resume within a relatively short timescale to establish a relationship between the UK and the EU in the future.
If a no deal Brexit is rejected on 13 March, the third vote on 14 March will be on whether the UK should seek an extension from the EU to Article 50, to allow further time for negotiations. However, it is not guaranteed that an extension would be granted, though we would expect it to be. However, it is far less certain that in the event of an extension a deal would be secured.
There have been some reports of the Art 50 deadline being extended for nine months, or possibly even until 2021. There is little political momentum at this stage for such a lengthy period, relatively speaking. And any extension past the European Parliamentary elections in late May 2019 may prove problematic as the UK would remain a member of the EU for a further limited period, but would not have any elected representatives to the Parliament. Whilst it is possible that a legal solution could be found to this, it could well be open to legal challenge.
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