Behind the political drama, the bureaucracy of Brexit drags on

Tough times ahead.
Tough times ahead.
Image: AP/Francisco Seco)
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With just 30 days to go before the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU, and only 19 sitting days left in parliament, time is running out for prime minister Theresa May.

That may have been what prompted May to announce yesterday (Feb. 26) that if her proposed Brexit deal is voted down by the UK parliament again, she will give MPs the option to vote to exit without a deal, or to delay Brexit.

Parliament rejected May’s proposed Brexit deal by a historic margin last month, telling the prime minister that she should seek better terms on the Irish backstop, a clause that seeks to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. By March 12, MPs will get a “meaningful vote” on a deal that includes any concessions May has been able to secure from the EU. But that’s assuming she gets any. The EU has repeatedly said the deal is not up for renegotiation, and May spent last week talking to EU leaders and a “not very optimistic” European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

If May manages to somehow win support for a deal—no small feat—her problems won’t end there. A subsequent “withdrawal agreement bill” (WAB) would then need to pass parliament as well before the March 29 exit date. That’s because international treaties like May’s Brexit deal require separate domestic legislation to implement them in the UK, explains Maddy Thimont Jack, a researcher at the Institute for Government think tank.

Previous implementing bills relating to major EU treaties have needed anywhere from 11 to 41 days to pass in UK parliament. The Treaty of Lisbon, for example, which was penned in 2007 and streamlined EU institutions, took 25 days and 122 votes on numerous amendments to implement. Typically, international treaties are subject in the UK to something called the “Ponsonby rule,” which gives parliament 21 days to object to a treaty. But the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 granted parliament a more enhanced role—hence, the “meaningful vote,” which allows MPs to vote on the deal’s contents.

There’s a chance that some MPs could try to torpedo May’s Brexit deal via the WAB. They could attempt to amend areas related to the EU divorce bill settlement, for example, to demand a future EU-UK trade agreement is penned before any payments are made. That could change the agreement in ways that make the EU unlikely to ratify a deal.

Jolyon Maugham, a leading London barrister and director of the Good Law Project, which has brought forward a number of Brexit-related legal challenges, doesn’t think that will happen. He anticipates the WAB would be passed with some speed if May gets a deal through, “because the structure of the withdrawal agreement will already have been considered and debated in parliament on numerous occasions.”

Yet it remains possible that May could win support for her Brexit deal, and fail to get the implementing bill through parliament in time, or even at all. That’s made a delay even more likely. “I think at the moment she is running down the clock—to focus minds to get MPs to vote in favor of the deal,” Thimont Jack said.

Meanwhile, the opposition Labour party has said it will back a second referendum if the party’s own version of a deal—which includes a permanent customs union with the EU—is rejected today. A second referendum would take months to organize, at a minimum.

EU officials are themselves expecting May to request a three-month Brexit delay. The bloc is also reportedly drafting plans to extend Brexit negotiations until 2021—a sign it doubts May will get nearly as far as the WAB.