Estimated reading time: 4 Minutes
22 October 2019
On the 17 October, the UK Government and EU announced that they had reached an agreement on a new deal for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and a revised political declaration on a future relationship. The revised agreement was supported by the EU 27 Member States at the latest EU Council meeting on 18 October. This blog post provides an overview of the revised agreement and political declaration, explains how the ratification process works and looks at the next steps in the Brexit process.
A new Withdrawal Agreement
The draft agreement includes a revised protocol on Northern Ireland and Ireland. The new protocol proposes different arrangements to avoid a ‘hard’ land border on the island of Ireland to those agreed previously. In future, Northern Ireland would follow the majority of the EU’s rules on customs, VAT and goods regulations but would remain in the UK’s customs territory. Goods that enter Northern Ireland from Great Britain will apply the EU customs code and tariffs if they enter, or are at risk of entering, the EU. This means that there would be a regulatory border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This new arrangement would apply for a four-year period initially and then its continuity would be subject to the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
A new Political Declaration
The Political Declaration is not a legal text but provides a political framework for discussions on a future relationship between the UK and EU. The revised Political Declaration supports a ‘deep and ambitious’ free trade agreement with the EU and cooperation agreements in other sectors. Whilst most of the text has remained the same, some important changes have been made:
- Future relationship: both parties explicitly commit to agreeing their future relationship by the end of the current transition period (31 December 2020);
- Level playing field: a more detailed paragraph has been added on ensuring a level playing field and upholding common, high standards on state aid, competition, taxation, social and employment standards, environment and climate change in any future agreement;
- Disputes: in the event of a dispute, both parties should first ‘make every attempt’ to resolve disputes through ‘discussion and consultation.’ The possibility of either parties seeking financial compensation for the non-compliance of the other has been removed and the European Court of Justice will continue to play its role in disputes that relate to the interpretation of EU law;
- Customs alignment: the Declaration makes looser commitments on customs alignment, including rules of origin.
Elements of the Declaration that have stayed the same are:
- a commitment to establish general principles for the UK’s participation post-Brexit in some of the EU’s programmes;
- the option for the UK to explore a future relationship with the European Investment Bank and to explore the possibility of UK cooperation with some EU agencies such as the European Medicines Agency, the European Chemicals Agency and the European Aviation Safety Agency; and
- the future agreement between the UK and EU could take the form of an Association Agreement.
In the UK, both the Withdrawal Agreement and a law bringing it into domestic legislation need to pass before ‘exit day’, currently scheduled for 31 October. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill, was introduced on 21 October.
The UK Parliament will begin its second reading of the Bill today.
On the EU side, the Withdrawal Agreement must be approved by the European Parliament before it can be formally adopted by the European Council.
The UK Prime Minister called an extraordinary session of the UK Parliament on Saturday 19 October to seek a meaningful vote on the terms of the new agreement. The UK Government failed to secure support for the revised deal. Instead, the UK Parliament voted in favour of holding a meaningful vote on the revised deal if legislation to implement it has been considered and passed by Parliament.
The failure to secure support meant that the Prime Minister was forced to comply with the requirements of the ‘Benn’ Act (EU Withdrawal (No.2) Act 2019) and request an extension to the negotiation period to 31 January 2020 from the European Council. At the time of writing, the European Council is considering this request.
On 21 October, the First Ministers of Wales and Scotland issued joint letters to European Council President, Donald Tusk, requesting that the extension be granted on the grounds that it is ‘simply impossible’ to fulfil their constitutional responsibilities in this timescale. In the letter, they said:
Our joint view is that the ultimate result of the Westminster Parliamentary process should be a referendum on EU membership. But in any event it is also essential to ensure that there is sufficient time for proper scrutiny of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
A critical part of the legislative process on any Bill which affects devolved competences is that the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales are invited to provide legislative consent. This is clearly the case with the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. This obviously requires detailed analysis and scrutiny of what we understand will be a lengthy and complex piece of legislation.
The coming days will be key in the Brexit timeline. There will be votes in Parliament, the Court’s decision on the Prime Minister’s compliance with the Benn Act and a decision from the EU Council on whether to grant a further extension to the negotiating period to 31 January 2020. Until then, the UK is scheduled to leave on the 31 October, in just 9 days’ time.