Brexit Q&A – March 2019

The Prime Minister’s Brexit deal was defeated in the House of Commons for a second time in February. It had no legal force in Parliament but 10 Downing Street had warned MPs it would make the Prime Minister’s EU talks harder.

How have further negotiations with the EU fared?

On Wednesday 20 February, the Prime Minister returned to Brussels for more talks to seek to resolve the impasse. The talks centred around the issue of resolving the Irish ‘backstop’, the measure which allows for the UK to remain in the EU customs union until a way is found, for example, a future free trade deal, to ensure that the Irish Republic’s border with Northern Ireland remains open i.e. no return to a ‘hard’ border.

After the meeting, Mrs May said that “progress” had been made to solve the impasse over the backstop arrangements for the Irish border but added that time was running out to secure changes. Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President, said the talks had been “constructive”. However, nothing had been agreed at time of writing. Frans Timmermans, the deputy head of the European Commission, said that the probability of the UK leaving the EU on 29 March with no formal deal had increased in February.

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Could Article 50 be extended if a deal is not negotiated in time?

Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is the legal process for a Member State to leave the EU. It establishes the two-year negotiation period, after which the departing member state is no longer subject to the EU’s treaties. The UK triggered Article 50 on 29 March 2017 which means the UK will leave the EU at 11:00pm on 29 March 2019.

The official UK government position remains opposed to an extension of Article 50 (although individuals have argued otherwise) and the EU27 has stated that it has already made its best offer to the UK government. If Article 50 were to be extended, it would need to have the unanimous agreement of the European Council, the EU heads of state and the governments of all 27 EU Member States.

The length of any Article 50 extension would be determined through negotiations between the UK and the EU. It would depend on how much business was outstanding and whether this required ratification or full renegotiation. It would also have to consider the European Parliamentary timetable. Elections to the European Parliament are scheduled to take place between Thursday 23 May and Sunday 26 May 2019. If the UK has still not left the EU by May, the UK will have to participate in this round of elections.

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How likely is it now that the UK will leave the EU with no formal deal?

The UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March unless Article 50 is extended.

On Tuesday 29 January, MPs voted to block a no-deal Brexit after passing an amendment which rejects the UK leaving the EU with no formal withdrawal agreement. The amendment, tabled by Tory Dame Caroline Spelman, won by 318 votes to 310. It must be borne in mind that the vote to block a no-deal is not legally binding on the government. However, it does increase the pressure on Theresa May to secure a deal acceptable to MPs in time for when Britain is due to leave the bloc on 29 March.

Despite his claim of “constructive” talks with Theresa May on 20 February, Jean-Claude Juncker said he is “not very optimistic” that a no-deal Brexit can be avoided. He also said recent events showed there was “no majority in favour” of a Brexit deal in the UK Parliament. The defection of three Conservative MPs to join eight former Labour MPs in the ‘Independent Group’ will have contributed to this lack of Parliamentary consensus on Brexit.

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