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Brexit Update: Agreement Reached by Negotiators but may be rejected by UK Parliament, and Significant Uncertainties Remain

November 26, 2018 Download PDF

Following months of negotiations, on November 25th, the negotiating teams for the UK Government, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, and the European Union, led by its chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, reached agreement on a 585-page withdrawal agreement and an accompanying 26-page non-binding, political declaration. The withdrawal agreement covers the so-called “divorce bill,” the rights of UK citizens in the EU and the rights of EU citizens in Britain, and the Ireland/Northern Ireland “backstop.” The political declaration addresses in broad terms what the future trade relationship may look like, but it is, in effect, only aspirational.

This is, however, by no means the end of the saga.

The draft withdrawal agreement was approved by the British Cabinet on November 14th – in a messy process that led to several high-profile resignations – but it must now be submitted to Parliament for approval in the so-called “meaningful vote” scheduled for December 11th. The Prime Minister needs to muster 320 votes in Parliament to get the deal through.  At present only about 231 MPs are expressing support for the agreement (and even some of these are unconfirmed).  Parliamentary rejection of the deal thus seems, as of now, not only possible, but likely. 

While the Prime Minister has tried to appeal directly to the British people, support for her deal in Parliament is extremely weak. The Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, resigned following the Cabinet’s approval of the draft withdrawal agreement, saying he could not support the deal hammered out by his own government and department, on the grounds that the Irish backstop threatens the integrity of the UK and it locks the UK into EU rules for an indefinite period. Jacob Rees-Mogg and other members of the European Research Group (ERG) have expressed their strong disapproval of the deal, in some cases claiming that it is worse than remaining in the EU.  Some ERG members had challenged the Prime Minister’s leadership by demanding a vote of no confidence.  Although that no-confidence effort failed, in total, it is now estimated that almost 90 Tory MPs, out the party’s 316 total MPs, are “no” votes or leaning in that direction.  The 10 members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on whose continued support the current Conservative Party government relies, have signalled that they will vote “no.”  And, as expected, most if not nearly all of the Labour Party’s 257 MPs, the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) 35 MPs, and the Liberal Democrat’s 12 MPs, appear likely to withhold support.

In short, the deal lacks the votes in Parliament. Between now and December 11th, the Prime Minister needs to change that. She will argue that there are only two options on the table: her deal, or no deal.  As of today, neither has majority support in Parliament.  There is, probably, a third alternative, which is no Brexit, but the Prime Minister and the Brexiters do not want to entertain that option, and to date Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and other senior Labour Party officials have been extremely cautious in advancing that as an alternative.  Some in the Labour Party leadership are not anti-Brexit (largely to remove Britain from EU single market antitrust and state subsidy rules), and many are more interested in triggering a new election. 

If, as seems likely today, the withdrawal agreement in its current form is rejected by the UK Parliament, what happens next? There are three dimensions to this question. What happens domestically in UK politics?  What are the realistic alternatives to the current agreement?  And how will the EU respond to whatever the UK does or proposes?

UK Political Alternatives

Within UK politics, there are several possible consequences of a “no” vote in Parliament:

  • Try again?  The withdrawal agreement provides that if it is voted down, ministers have 21 days to make a statement to the House of Commons on how it intends to proceed, after which the government has seven days to move a motion in the House of Commons.  The government could then propose new legislation.  But new legislation would presumably have to offer something new, and that would require the government to attempt to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement.  But the Prime Minister has said that is not a real option.  More importantly, senior EU negotiators, including European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, have made clear that the deal on offer is the only deal that is possible.  Other European leaders have made similar statements, although some have been more nuanced than others.  Moreover, it appears unlikely that incremental changes – tweaks to the withdrawal agreement – would address any of the fundamental objections that are being voiced by critics of the deal, and a fundamental overhaul seems unlikely.
  • A Tory leadership change?  Theresa May could resign, or she could be deposed by the ERG and other Tory backbenchers in a no-confidence vote if they can gather the 48 signatures needed to demand the vote and prevail in the vote itself (requiring the support of 159 of the 316 Tory MPs).  If this happens, the Conservative Party would need to select a new leader.  It is not clear that a leadership change in the Conservative Party would heal or even paper over the deep divisions in the party regarding Brexit, or change the range of options actually available.  Note that an election contest does not mean necessarily that there would be a new general election.
  • A new election?  Although the UK now has a fixed-term Parliament, a new election could be called in one of several ways.  The Prime Minister could seek a vote of Parliament (by a two-thirds majority of all MPs) to call a new election.  An alternative is a motion of no confidence put to Parliament (and not just the Tories), which could be lost if seven Tories and all 10 DUP members vote against the government, depriving it of a majority.  Or the government could seek to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which sets a five-year period between elections.  Labour has called repeatedly for a new election, both because this is its only path to power and because recent polls suggest it might prevail.  But, even if there were a new election and Labour were to prevail, the new government would still be left with the very awkward issue of what to do in relation to Brexit, as the UK’s options would remain the same unless the EU were to give it more time.
  • A second vote in Parliament?  If faced with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, it is conceivable that MPs might reassess the options and, in a second vote (similar to the second vote in the U.S. Congress when the Troubled Assets Relief Program was passed after the House of Representatives first rejected it and the stock market plunged 7%), approve the withdrawal agreement in its current form.  The context is very different from the TARP vote, but the prospect of a no-deal exit might be devastating to the markets and, in that sense, prompt a similar legislative re-think.
  • A second referendum?  It is possible that Parliament, faced with no good alternatives, would call a second referendum, or “People’s Vote” as its proponents prefer to call it, in order to shift the choice back to the electorate.  This option is fiercely opposed by supporters of Brexit, in part because they claim it is the elite’s means of overriding the will of the people as expressed in the first referendum, and in part because they fear (as polls now indicate) that “Remain” might prevail this time, by a narrow margin.  There is legitimate fear, therefore, that a second referendum would be deeply divisive.  It is a fraught option as well: if there is a vote, is it one question or two questions – covering in any event at least two and possibly three options – the deal on the table, reversal of Brexit or a no-deal exit?  The current Brexit timetable makes it extremely difficult for any such vote to occur, unless the EU27 were to extend the Article 50 deadline.

Alternatives to the Agreement

While terribly important to the politicians involved, these UK domestic political dynamics are only important to the Brexit process if they change the options on the table, or change the UK’s choice among those options.

If Michel Barnier and the other EU27 officials are taken at their word, there are only two alternatives available to the UK, aside from the withdrawal agreement and political declaration just agreed by the negotiators: a “no deal” Brexit or no Brexit (involving a withdrawal of the UK’s notice under Article 50 and agreement to remain in the EU).

No deal.  There appears to be widespread acknowledgement in the UK business community that a “no deal”, or “hard” Brexit, would be economically harmful, and perhaps severely so. Labour Party and even some Conservative Party leaders have voiced their views that Parliament will not allow a “no deal” Brexit, although it is not entirely clear how they could assure that outcome unless the government withdraws the Article 50 notice.

No Brexit.  As for the UK’s ability to withdraw its Article 50 notice and remain in the EU, there is some debate over whether it can do that unilaterally, or whether it would need the acquiescence of the EU27 at this point. This question is likely to be clarified by the outcome of a case now pending before the European Court of Justice, which was referred in September by the Scottish Court of Session and presents this question squarely.  Last week, the UK Supreme Court dismissed a challenge by the government seeking to halt the referral. 

A clear ruling by the ECJ that the UK has this unilateral right would clarify the UK’s legal ability to select that option. But legal ability and political ability are not the same. Withdrawing the Article 50 notice would be politically disastrous for the Conservative Party, perhaps leading to its fracturing, unless perhaps the outcome were mandated by a second referendum (and could thus be portrayed as a decision of the people, and not the party).

Other options?  There are those who – rejecting all three options on the table – wish for other alternatives. Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP, and an increasing number of others are reported to be calling for a “Norway” deal (although that would be completely anathema to the ERG and other Brexiters) as a plan B.  This softer Brexit option would involve remaining in a customs union, which would appeal to Labour as well.  Boris Johnson and others have argued that the UK should instead seek a “Canada-style” agreement, which is often referred to as a “Canada plus” agreement in recognition that a deal of the sort agreed between the EU and Canada – after more than 7 years of negotiations – would be inadequate as applied to the UK.  But these alternatives, which would have been realistic a year ago, are completely impossible within the very short time left.

Extending the deadline?  Cognizant of the straightjacket that the Article 50 timetable places on a search for alternatives – the UK leaves the EU on March 29, 2019, and that date cannot be changed without EU27 agreement – Keir Starmer, the Labour Party shadow Brexit Minister, has called for the Article 50 deadline to be extended to allow time to reach agreement on different terms. This presumably reflects a realization by Labour that if it were to win the election it has been calling for it would have no better or different options than those currently on the table under Tory leadership.

But, as noted above, the EU27 leadership at least claims to have no interest in extending the deadline or negotiating a different deal. There is, however, a widespread assumption that the EU27 would be willing to extend the deadline to allow time for a second referendum that included a “Remain” option. And it is possible – but by no means assured – that it might allow a short extension if there were an election, if the Labour Party were to win decisively, and if the new government were to put a concrete proposal on the table that was attractive to the EU27.  There are, however, many “ifs” to that scenario.

In summary, although the negotiators have reached a political agreement, there is no certainty – and at this point not even a likelihood – that the agreement will be approved and implemented. And there is no clarity on what will happen if it is voted down in Parliament, as now seems likely.

The Withdrawal Agreement/Political Declaration

Even if the withdrawal agreement is ultimately approved by Parliament, significant uncertainties will remain. Under the agreement, during the transition period, Britain will follow all of the rules of the EU (as it does today), but with no seat at the table (in the executive organs or in the European Parliament) when rules are modified or new rules are enacted. The country remains in both the customs union and the single market.  As the end of the transition period nears, what happens if there is no trade agreement in sight?  Either the transition period has to be extended, which is anathema to the Brexiters, or the “backstop” is triggered, which is anathema to the DUP (as it means Northern Ireland becomes tied to the EU single market, while the rest of the UK remains in the EU customs union).  Even if the transition period is extended (by one or two years, as now contemplated in the withdrawal agreement), if there is no trade agreement by the end date, as extended, the backstop is triggered.

The political declaration will form the basis of negotiations that will begin after March 29, 2019. As noted above, it is long on aspiration and short on detail. This means that no one today knows what that future relationship will look like.  The declaration recites the intention of the parties to finalize the necessary agreements so that they can come into force by the end of 2020.  Among the more significant items:

  • The declaration “establishes the parameters of an ambitions, broad, deep and flexible partnership across trade and economic cooperation, law enforcement and criminal justice, foreign policy, security and defense and wider areas of cooperation.”
  • The relationship is to be consistent with the EU’s principles, meaning the integrity of the single market and customs union, and the sanctity of the “four freedoms.” The trading relationship is to be “as close as possible,” but there is no reference to “frictionless” trade in goods that underpinned the Prime Minister’s July Chequers proposal.
  • The declaration also refers to “ambitious customs arrangements that … build and improve on the single customs territory provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement ….” The Brexiters fear that any temporary customs arrangement will become permanent.
  • The declaration refers to “facilitative arrangements and technological solutions” to avoid the imposition of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but there is no precedent for such solutions at this time.
  • The declaration refers to “commitments on customs and regulatory cooperation, including alignment of rules” which could encompass a range of solutions (including a Canada-style or Norway-like arrangement, or anything else), but there are no commitments to any specific set of solutions on either end of the spectrum, or in between.
  • Regulation of services, including financial services, is to be based on a system of “equivalence.” It is unclear whether this means treatment like any other third country, or some form of preferential treatment. 
  • While the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will end, disputes as to interpretations of EU law that arise in the future are to be adjudicated by the European Court of Justice.
  • Fisheries also remains a hot button, and while the parties commit to use their “best endeavors” to reach a new agreement by July 1, 2020, there is no roadmap for addressing access to UK fishing waters by EU fishing vessels, in return for access by Britain to EU markets for its products. In a separate statement issued by the European Council, the EU27 said, it “will demonstrate particular vigilance as regards safeguarding the rights and interests of citizens, the necessity to maintain ambitious level playing field conditions, and to protect fishing enterprises and coastal communities.” 

The withdrawal agreement provides that the transition period can be extended once prior to July 1, 2020 and contemplates an extension of one or two years. If the transition period is extended, Britain will be required to make an additional contribution to the EU budget.

To the extent anyone is focused on the specific terms of the deal – and at this point that may be a tall order given the political forces arrayed against it and the febrile atmosphere in Westminster – the backstop is likely to be the focal point of concern. As we have previously reported, the backstop is the mechanism to deal with the Ireland-Northern Ireland border in the absence of trade agreement. The regime, which in effect means Northern Ireland remains tied to the EU single market, and the rest of the UK remains in the EU customs union, would apply until it is suspended or superseded.  To the consternation of the Brexiters, the backstop regime cannot be terminated unilaterally by the British (rather it terminates by mutual agreement), and while it has been presented as temporary, it has no specified end date.  Britain has accepted that it will not be able to exit the backstop “unless and until” the EU agrees there is no likelihood of a return to a hard border.  The risk of the backstop was highlighted by the French President within hours of the announcement of the historic agreement, who linked resolution of the fisheries issue to the backstop, highlighting that if the EU27 do not succeed in gaining full access to British waters during the negotiations on the trading relationship, they can withhold approval of the trading relationship and force Britain into the backstop. 

What to watch for in the coming weeks

We can expect political posturing to continue up to the meaningful vote now set for December 11th. The government has scheduled a full five days of Commons debate in the period leading up to that vote (beginning December 4th), in the hope that the Prime Minister and others may be able during that period to convince a sufficient number of Tory MPs and some combination of DUP and Labour MPs to make passage of the deal possible.

When it comes time for MPs to cast their votes, they will be very much aware that voting down the withdrawal agreement further increases the chances of a no-deal exit, which very few want. Tory MPs will be focused on the risk that a rejection of the deal will cause the current government to collapse, which may in turn lead to an election they might lose. And Labour will be focused on the reality that, even if they were to win such an election, they may have no alternatives that are not already on the table.

The European Court of Justice will decide if the UK has the legal right to remain in the EU simply by withdrawing its Article 50 notice (or whether it needs EU27 acquiescence). And politicians across all parties will have to decide whether to support a second referendum, in some cases not because they like that alternative, but only because it appears the least bad option.

The other key question is how does this entire process fits within the broader timetable. Absent action on the part of the EU27, Britain leaves the EU with or without an agreement on March 29, 2019. Note that if the agreement is approved by Parliament, the EU27 must also approve the agreement (the European Parliament must pass it by a simple majority, and 20 member states voting in the European Council representing at least 65% of the EU population must approve).  While most commentators recognize that a no-deal Brexit would be a catastrophe, the various paths to avoid that outcome will require significant compromise across an increasing number of red lines.  And should the withdrawal agreement be voted down, while many will be focusing on the scenarios outlined above, others will need to seriously consider  the contingency actions necessary to mitigate the impact of a possible no-deal exit.

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