Brexit ‘endgame’: What happens next?

With fewer than 150 days to go until we leave the European Union, a document leaked from the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) suggests that the government believes it is edging closer to achieving a Brexit deal. Even if the government gets a deal, there is a still a long way to go before 29 March. Theresa May’s opponents will seize on every opportunity for political capital; her difficulties are far from over.

Among all the political noise, it’s important to remember that these are negotiations and as such we can always expect a certain amount of posturing from both sides. Here is our short summary of the hurdles between now and Brexit day.

Late 2018: Deal or no deal?

The first challenge is to reach an agreement with the EU. This remains far from certain. We are being told that a deal is ‘95% agreed’, with the Irish border proving the last major sticking point.

The government is trying to come up with a legal fix to prevent a hard border. At issue are ‘backstop’ provisions in the exit treaty that are intended to guarantee against a hard border. The proposed backstop could keep the entire UK in a customs union with the EU even after a transition deal expires in December 2020. Theresa May has stated that this backstop must not be permanent and that the integrity of the UK must be preserved. She must now find a form of words that wins the backing of her cabinet and the EU.

Ministers are thought to be extremely keen that the deal is struck by the end of November, and the government is hoping that a draft of the deal could be published this week. Meanwhile EU diplomats say that December is the final opportunity to reach a withdrawal agreement. The last European Council of 2018, held on 13–14 December, is therefore widely seen as the last practical date for any deal to be signed off. Waiting any later would make it very difficult for parliament to give the treaty the scrutiny it deserves.

Once a withdrawal agreement has been reached, it must be put to an EU summit. The agreement will require the backing of a ‘supermajority’ of member state leaders – at least 20 of the 27 EU countries as well as a vote of the EU parliament. However, according to the EU Withdrawal Act, ‘before the European parliament decides whether it consents to the withdrawal agreement being concluded on behalf of the EU’, the deal must be approved by UK parliament.

Meaningful vote

Parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ is widely seen as the biggest hurdle to any Brexit deal. The prime minister faces a monumental challenge to ensure the deal’s successful passage through the commons. The Labour Party looks set to vote against any deal, while the Conservatives remain fatally divided over the issue, with the DUP and Tory brexiteers threatening to vote down the PM’s deal. Jo Johnson’s resignation and call for a people’s vote has put the PM under yet more pressure; clearly she will require the votes of Labour rebels. Keep an eye out later this week for our blog on where the major parties stand on Brexit. With the PM’s majority so precarious, this vote will be the greatest parliamentary challenge of her premiership.

Deal approved (or not)

If parliament backs the deal, Theresa May is still not home and dry. The deal must then be translated into UK law by way of the EU (withdrawal agreement) bill. This will pass into law some of Brexit’s biggest issues, such as the agreements on citizen’s rights, the financial settlement and the details of the transition. It will also give opponents another opportunity to land blows with amendments.

Although Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Dominic Raab attempted to remove the possibility for amendments in October, any such move would face vociferous opposition from shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, Brexit select committee chief Hilary Benn and other influential MPs. Amendments could attempt to force a harder Brexit with less adherence to EU rules or a softer Brexit which attempts to retain membership of the customs union or the European Economic Area. We could also see attempts to pivot the PM towards a Canada-style deal or to force a vote on the second UK-EU agreement on the future partnership.

If parliament rejects the deal, the PM will have to go back to the EU in the hopes of a revised deal, which parliament would still have to ratify. Of course at this point, we could see calls for Theresa May to resign, calls for a second referendum, or a Tory leadership challenge. We may also see attempts to forge so-called ‘mixed deals’.

21 January 2019

If there is no deal by this date, the government is obliged to make a statement within five days on what the UK plans to do. Any extension to article 50 would only be sanctioned by the EU if the UK showed ‘demonstrable need’ – if there was a second referendum, a general election or a new prime minister. Alternatively, Britain heads towards a no deal Brexit.

23.00 on 29 March 2019

Britain formally leaves the European Union.

After 30 March 2019

At this point, we expect trade talks to begin between the UK and the EU. If a deal has been achieved, a 21-month transition period will also begin on this day, providing an undisrupted period during which little changes day-to-day. Without a deal, this date marks the start of a cliff-edge Brexit.

Useful resources

NCVO has recently published guidance for voluntary organisations on how to prepare for Brexit. We have also published our thinking on Brexit.

For more information on the role of parliament in Brexit:

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Ben Westerman is a senior external relations officer at NCVO, leading on Brexit work.

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