New year, same bill
The Withdrawal Agreement Bill is back from holiday – after passing its second reading on 20th December with a thumping majority of 124 votes, it came back to the House of Commons for the committee stage on Tuesday 7th January.
The bill covers most of the Brexit-related topics that have been hotly contested over the past three years: the financial settlement – “divorce payment” – with the EU, citizens’ rights, customs arrangements for Northern Ireland, and the proposed 11-month transition period lasting until 31st December 2020.
The opposition, as before the December general election, attempted to amend the Bill. Labour, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats all submitted amendments aiming to guarantee the rights of the three million EU citizens residing in the UK. Labour’s amendment sought to provide the right of permanent residence to all EU citizens living in the UK, while the aim of the Liberal Democrat and SNP amendments was to establish a right to appeal settled status decisions.
Another amendment from Labour intended to allow unaccompanied child refugees to continue to be reunited with their families in the UK after exit day. The provision had been accepted by the government under the previous Parliament, when voting margins were much tighter. It was scrapped in the new version of the bill. But with a government majority of 80 in the House of Commons, these amendments did not stand a chance of passing. Opposition parties will draw some satisfaction in seeing that the amendment requiring Big Ben to chime at 11pm on 31st January – the exact moment when the UK will be leaving the EU – was not selected for debate.
Nearly a year after the first rejection of its predecessor in Parliament, the Bill has finally passed the third reading of the House of Commons with a resounding majority of 99 votes. It has now been sent to the House of Lords, with the hope that peers will be less interested in discussing its content at length than MPs were.
Two former Brusselians meet in 10 Downing Street
On Wednesday, when MPs were debating the bill in Parliament, Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen met in 10 Downing Street for the first time in her capacity as European Commission president. Three years and a half after the 2016 referendum, both sides were eager to move on from the bitter divisions of the past and lay the foundations of a new relationship between the EU and the UK. Von der Leyen described the meeting as the start of a new era of “old friends and new beginnings”, while Johnson declared his desire for a positive new UK and EU partnership, based on friendly cooperation, shared history, interests and values.
The two leaders – who both spent part of their childhood in Brussels – reminisced about the school they both attended. On more substantial matters, the EU Commission President called for a focus on the common ground shared by the UK and the EU on issues such as climate change, human rights and security. This contrasted with Johnson’s desire to break with EU rules and regulations to deliver the Brexit that the British people voted for – and, perhaps, to lay the groundwork for a new deal with the US.
A new clock is ticking
In his effort to “get Brexit done”, Boris Johnson made it clear that he would not be requesting an extension to the transition period at the end of December 2020. So, a new clock is ticking: the need to vote through a withdrawal agreement before the Article 50 deadline has now been replaced with a new rush towards a trade deal before the end of the transition period. Failing that, the UK would effectively be leaving the single market under WTO terms and face new tariffs and trade complications – sounds familiar?
With only 11 months to go before the deadline, the UK and the EU negotiating teams have no time to lose. Negotiations for the EU’s trade agreements with Canada and Singapore – two models Britain has considered in the past – took around nine years to conclude. Despite this, Boris Johnson remains optimistic that a deal can be struck within the timeframe.
The EU side remains more sceptical. Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency for the first six months of 2020, has called on both sides to be “realistic” about what can be achieved given the time constraints. Von der Leyen has expressed her doubts more explicitly: she believes that “without an extension of the transition period beyond 2020, you cannot expect to agree on every single aspect of our new partnership”.
Downing Street has suggested a solution to the timeframe conundrum: getting rid of the approach of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” which had characterised the first phase of the negotiations. In practice, this would mean adopting a more slice-by-slice approach to the talks – a tactic which has already inspired EU commentators to make an array of salami metaphors. EU officials have been wary of adopting a piecemeal approach: they fear it would help Britain secure minimal sector-by-sector zero-tariff trade deals while it deviates from EU rules and regulations in other sectors, thus helping the UK emerge as a light-regulation competitor.
Johnson’s office has also revealed some of the UK’s priorities and red lines in these negotiations: any future partnership must not involve any kind of alignment or jurisdiction under the European Court of Justice. It would also have to respect Britain’s sovereignty over its fishing waters and immigration system, two key issues of the 2016 referendum campaign. These conditions, along with Britain’s refusal to align with EU provisions regarding environmental standards and workers’ rights, will certainly make for lively negotiations…
…but if the Prime Minister were to change his mind, the deadline for requesting a one- or two-year extension to the transition period is 1st July 2020. Just in case.
A belated Christmas for Conservative MEPs
Christmas came late for the Conservative Party in the European Parliament. On Wednesday 8th January, four former Brexit Party MEPs – including Annunziata Rees-Mogg, sister of the eponymous leader of the House of Commons – announced they were about to join the Conservative Party. Back in December, the four parliamentarians had already left the party under which they were elected in order to help Boris Johnson win a majority in the general election. While their move comes just under a month before they are to be made redundant, it nonetheless more than doubles the number of Conservative Party MEPs from three to seven – a symbolic win for Boris Johnson and his Brexit deal.
Clash of the nations
The 2020 rugby Six Nations Championship is set to take off on Saturday 1st February, but UK nations are already making themselves heard. Now that Brexit is all but assured to take place on 31st January, Scotland and Northern Ireland are planning the next steps.
On Wednesday 8th January, the Scottish Parliament voted by a majority of 63 to refuse legislative consent for the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill. While the vote was largely symbolic – Westminster remains sovereign, even if it asked for Holyrood’s consent – the SNP called the situation an “unprecedented constitutional crisis”. There is no doubt that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will use this divergence of views on Brexit in making her case for a second Scottish independence referendum.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, local businesses are preparing for the new customs border with Great Britain that Brexit will install down the Irish Sea. On Friday 3rd January, leading entrepreneurs met political leaders in a local summit to voice their fear that the trade barrier will mean higher costs for consumers and businesses. Northern Irish parties joined their efforts in a cross-party attempt to secure legal guarantees for “unfettered” trade across the Irish Sea, future consultation with the devolved government over any new Brexit regulation affecting Northern Ireland, and compensation for businesses. The four amendments they submitted in the House of Commons were swiftly defeated by the Conservative majority on Wednesday 8th January.
The Whitehouse team are experts in the potential impact of Brexit, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union. More information about our Brexit experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.