Less than 180 days to go and the pressure is on. Talks between the UK and the EU are at deadlock, with the intractable Irish border problem the biggest stumbling block. But here’s the catch: they must also set aside time for the deal to be reviewed and ratified by both sides.
In the United Kingdom, parliament must vote through the withdrawal agreement into law, while on the European side, it must receive the support from member states and the European parliament.
We all know that the clock is ticking. But political process on both sides means the real deadline is not 29 March itself. So just how much time is there?
On the EU’s side, Danuta Huebner, who chairs the European Parliament’s Brexit committee, has suggested that approval could be granted as late as the 11 March 2019. Meanwhile, the fact that the EU commission has continually updated EU capitals and institutions throughout the negotiations means that they would be unlikely to reject the agreement – even if it were presented to them as late as March.
But there are several reasons why delaying the vote until March would be politically problematic. First, although national parliaments in the EU will not be voting on the withdrawal agreement, some heads of governments may still be still required, in line with their own parliamentary traditions, to discuss the deal before and after the vote takes place. The Danish parliament’s European committee, for example, has a strong tradition of organising hearings ahead of EU votes and, in some cases, has even managed to influence the government’s position.
Second, the EU is conscious that the longer it discusses the terms of the UK’s exit, the less time it will have to discuss the future trade and security relationship. The way negotiations are organised means that discussions about the future can only take place once a withdrawal agreement has been reached. Many predict these discussions to be far more complex and question whether a future deal can be reached during the transition period which, providing it goes ahead, will end in December 2020.
Third, businesses on both sides are demanding greater clarity on the UK’s position after March 2019. For them, the longer the talks last, the less time they have to draw up new plans.
For all these reasons, the EU has provisionally set the date of 17 November to vote on the withdrawal agreement. But it is also in the UK’s interest to reach a deal by the end of the year.
For starters, there is actually a UK legal requirement that the government reach an agreement with the EU by 21 January 2019. In the absence of an exit deal, the UK parliament could put pressure on the government to change course – it is not clear how the prime minister would survive such a vote.
But even if the UK and the EU did reach an agreement by January 2019, there is no guarantee that the UK parliament would support it. Worse still, if it did reject the deal, it is hard to see how both sides could negotiate and ratify new exit terms by March 2019. Faced with such a dilemma, is it time to be thinking about extending talks beyond March 2019?
Legally speaking, this could be possible. According to Article 50, talks can be extended beyond the two-year negotiating framework, although this would require the approval of all 27 member states as well as the UK. But politically, this might prove complicated.
First, it is unclear how long talks would be extended for. The EU parliament elections are planned for May 2019, so a Brexit vote would need to take place either before the elections or after a new parliament is in place. The elections will also lead to the appointment of a new commission in the autumn, possibly even a new president. The EU may be reluctant to vote before the end of the year.
Second, it is unclear what would happen to the transition period. Currently, the transition is due to end at the end of 2020, at the same time as the current EU budget. During this time, the UK would continue to be part of the single market and customs union – although it would have no formal say or vote over new EU legislation. As a consequence, the UK may be asked to contribute to the new EU budget if it wanted to continue accessing the single market and customs union beyond 2020. It is hard to see how UK politicians would accept this.
When voting takes place depends largely on how quickly the UK and the EU reach an agreement. If they fail to reach a deal by 21 January 2019, or if the UK parliament rejects it, then frankly, all bets are off.