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31 July 2020
The UK left the EU on 31 January and entered a transition period, which expires on 31 December. EU and UK negotiators have acknowledged that negotiations to agree a future UK-EU relationship have resulted in limited progress.
If the UK and the EU are to reach an agreement on the future relationship, negotiations must be finished and final texts ratified in time for any new arrangements to come into force on 1 January 2021.
This blog outlines the timeline for the remainder of 2020 and explains the processes involved.
Face to face negotiations have resumed following a series of virtual negotiations due to the coronavirus pandemic. The EU and the UK acknowledged that, as a result of a lack of progress from one round to the next, extra, specialised sessions would begin to tackle the greatest areas of divergence. These take place between main rounds, are more limited in scope and cover areas such as fisheries and competition (referred to as the ‘level playing field’).
Following the last full round of negotiations (Round 5), UK Chief Negotiator, David Frost, advised that the UK continues to prepare for “all possible scenarios”. This follows the deadline being missed to reach “early understanding on the principles underlying any agreement”. A specialised round in London was held this week and a full round (Round 6) begins on 17 August in Brussels. Both sides expect the negotiations to continue into September (PDF, 413KB) and this was reaffirmed by Mr Frost on 23 July.
Developments in Wales
The Welsh Government has published its negotiating priorities for the UK-EU future relationship. However, the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition, Jeremy Miles, has described the UK Government as “fundamentally uninterested” in engaging with the devolved governments.
During evidence to the Senedd’s External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee on 14 July, he explained that longstanding issues remain, including in relation to receiving advance notice of the negotiations, information sharing and a lack of four-nations discussions. In this regard, he suggested the situation has “not improved in the slightest” throughout the negotiations. Both the Secretary of State for Wales, Simon Hart, in evidence to the same Committee on 30 June, and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, in a letter on 14 June, previously refuted these claims.
If the UK and the EU reach agreement on their future relationship, they will also need time to ratify it before it comes into effect. The EU’s Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, has advised that a final text is needed no later than 31 October in order to complete the EU’s ratification process before the 31 December deadline. The UK’s Chief Negotiator, David Frost (PDF, 215KB), has also stated that October or November “is getting a bit late” for negotiations to be ongoing if an agreement is to be ratified by the end of the year.
The EU’s ratification process (PDF, 2MB) involves at least three of the EU’s institutions and, depending on the content of the agreement, can involve more. The EU’s Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, acts on behalf of the EU Commission.
If an agreement is finalised, the Chief Negotiator will present it to the EU Council, which comprises the leaders of the 27 Member States (“EU27”). Each Member State must provide consent or else the agreement stalls. They can also decide whether to provisionally apply the agreement. EU27 unanimity is not guaranteed and several EU Member State elections have taken place this year. Lithuanian elections are planned for October, which could affect Member State positions on the final agreement.
The vote on the agreement could be held at the Council meeting on 15-16 October if a final text is available. Mr Barnier shared a draft timeline based on this scenario with the European Parliament’s UK Coordination Group on 24 July.
If the Council grants unanimous consent, the European Parliament must then also provide its consent. This could be done at its session of 23-26 November. If not, both the Council and the Parliament’s next meetings are in December (10-11 and 14-17, respectively). Previously, both institutions have shown willingness to hold extra sessions to carry out Brexit-related business and this approach may be needed again.
There are potentially additional requirements (PDF, 2MB) in the EU’s ratification process, including:
- Any of the EU27 can request the opinion of the European Court of Justice (CJEU) as to whether the agreement is compatible with the EU’s treaties. If the CJEU finds this is not the case, the agreement must be returned and amended, or face rejection;
- If the agreement contains areas of cooperation that straddle the competence of both the EU and Member States (a so-called ‘mixed agreement’), the consent of the 27 EU Member States’ parliaments can be required in addition to the consent of the EU’s institutions. Past agreements have taken several years to complete this step although some or all of the agreement could be applied provisionally.
The UK must also complete its ratification process before 31 December. Most of the UK’s international agreements are brought into domestic law via the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (“CRaG”), a process which incorporates them within 21 days if Parliament does not object. There is no formal role for the devolved legislatures in this, although the Senedd’s External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee has a dedicated process for scrutinising the impact of international agreements on Wales.
A vote in Parliament is not required, as the UK Government’s commitment to obtain its approval was removed from the original version of the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 when it was reintroduced in December 2019. However, primary legislation may still be needed to implement the agreement before the end of the year. As the arrangements are likely to fall within devolved competence, the UK Government may be required to seek the consent of the devolved governments and legislatures this Autumn.
Implementing the Withdrawal Agreement
Meanwhile, the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement continues and various meetings are expected to take place throughout September-November. Implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement is a shared responsibility of the UK and the EU. Oversight is provided by the UK-EU Joint Committee, supported by six specialised committees, whose work began between March-June 2020. The six committees cover Ireland-Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, Citizens’ Rights, the Sovereign Base Areas of the UK in Cyprus, Financial Provisions and other separation provisions.
Failure to implement the Withdrawal Agreement by either side is likely to affect their willingness to agree a future relationship. The EU institutions have previously stated that an agreement on a future relationship is conditional on the UK implementing the Withdrawal Agreement in full.