The countdown to Britain’s planned departure from the EU is under way – here are the key dates and parliamentary battles on the road to Brexit.
- 5-8 June Article 50 technical negotiations between the UK and the EU in Brussels, focusing on Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland as well as future relationship between the UK and the EU
- 12 June European Union (Withdrawal) Bill returns to the House of Commons, where MPs will consider Lords amendments
- 28-29 June EU summit. This was seen as a deadline by which the UK was expected to produce answers on the UK’s customs relationship with the EU and Northern Ireland, but this deadline is now highly unlikely to be met
- 17-18 October EU summit. If the June summit fails to produce a plan for the UK’s customs relationship with the EU, the issue will have to be dealt with at the October summit. But this was seen as a deadline for an agreement setting out the terms of UK-EU “divorce” – the so-called withdrawal agreement – to allow enough time for the UK Parliament and the European Parliament to ratify it. A political declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU is also expected at this point
- Late October The Commons and Lords have been promised a vote on the withdrawal treaty – MPs could reject the deal but it’s not clear what would happen in that eventuality. The UK Parliament also needs to pass an implementation bill before Brexit day. The withdrawal agreement will then go to the European Parliament for ratification
- November There is speculation that an emergency EU summit on Brexit might be held in this month, if a withdrawal agreement and a declaration on the future relationship are not reached in October
- 13-14 December – EU summit. If a deal has not been done by October, this is the fallback option if the two sides still want to reach an agreement
Ratification of the withdrawal agreement by the UK Parliament and the European Parliament.
- 21-22 March – The final summit that the UK is expected to attend as a member of the EU
- 29 March, at 2300 GMT – The UK to leave the EU. A special summit of the 27 other EU countries soon after the UK’s exit is expected, but has not yet been scheduled
- 23-26 May Elections for the European Parliament in 27 EU countries (the UK will no longer be represented in the parliament)
- 31 December 2020 If all goes to plan, a transition period will last until midnight on this date
What’s happening in Parliament?
One of the key Brexit laws will return to the House of Commons this week. MPs will have to decide whether to accept or reject changes made to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill by the House of Lords.
Peers inflicted an unprecedented 15 defeats on the government in April and May on issues ranging from a customs union to environmental protection.
There has been a lot of debate over whether Theresa May has enough Conservative colleagues onside to avoid damaging defeats on the Withdrawal Bill.
But this is just one of the parliamentary hoops the government has to jump through before Brexit day.
The Withdrawal Bill
What is it?
A law that will repeal the European Communities Act which brought the UK into the EU in 1972, and copy EU laws and regulations that are currently in force into UK law.
It will also give ministers powers to make small changes to laws and regulations without having to bring a whole new bill to Parliament. This is one of the powers that opponents have feared could be open to abuse.
The bill entered Parliament in July 2017 and has slowly made its way through both the House of Commons and Lords. After the government lost 15 votes on changes to the proposed bill in the Lords, MPs will now debate and vote on the changes. The bill will go back and forth between the two houses until there are no more changes being made, in a process known as “ping-pong”.
If Mrs May’s government fails to win enough votes in the Commons, the bill could be passed with some significant conditions attached. One of the most high-profile changes would require the government to report to Parliament on its effort to negotiate a customs union – something that has been ruled out by the PM.
What are they?
In last year’s Queen’s Speech, the government announced eight Brexit laws that will be needed to prepare the country before it leaves the EU. Some of these have begun their journey through Parliament, but many of them are not even published yet, including a Fisheries Bill, Migration Bill and Agriculture Bill – all areas that will need significant new legislation once we are no longer under European jurisdiction. The two most high-profile are the Trade Bill and the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill, also known as the Customs Bill.
Good question. The government has been criticised for its slow progress on key legislation. The Customs and Trade Bills have both passed the first stages in the House of Commons but no date is set for their return, perhaps because the next stage will involve crunch votes on the customs union that Mrs May could lose.
When the Trade Bill returns to the Commons, MPs will vote on an amendment tabled by Conservative MP Anna Soubry. If passed, the amendment would force the government to make it an “objective” to take “all necessary steps” to set up a customs union between the UK and EU. This is much stronger wording than the amendment to the Withdrawal Bill and defeat would be a significant blow to Mrs May’s plans.
Vote on the Withdrawal Agreement
What is it?
MPs will have a vote on the final withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future partnership once they’ve been negotiated with the EU. This is the “meaningful vote” promised to MPs by the prime minister.
Brexit Secretary David Davis has said the vote will be on a motion that can be amended and that the government will treat the result as binding.
Soon after the withdrawal agreement has been finalised (expected by the end of October 2018). Mr Davis has said the vote will take place before the European Parliament votes on the agreement.
This is potentially the biggest threat to the government’s plans. Ministers have presented the vote as a decision between approving their withdrawal agreement and “no deal”.
If MPs can amend the motion, they could put conditions on the withdrawal agreement. The Lords added an amendment which would potentially give MPs even more power. Under that proposal they could direct the government on how it should act if the withdrawal agreement is rejected.
Withdrawal and Implementation Bill
What is it?
Another bill that needs to be passed before the UK leaves the EU. It will enshrine the withdrawal agreement in law and give legal effect to whatever transition period is agreed. The difference between this and the motion in Parliament is that the motion is there to approve the withdrawal agreement while the bill is there to implement it.
The bill cannot be written until there is a withdrawal agreement and it must be passed before Brexit day (29 March 2019). MPs complicated the process in December when they passed an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill – proposed by Conservative MP Dominic Grieve – that would require this bill to be passed before the government can use secondary legislation to implement Brexit. This means the vote on this bill will act as another “meaningful vote”.
It is unclear what would happen if Parliament rejects the Withdrawal and Implementation Bill.
What is it?
Under the Withdrawal Bill, the government has the power to make changes to laws that need to happen before Brexit day. This is called secondary legislation and is often used to make small technical changes to laws. But opposition politicians have warned that excessive use of these powers could be undemocratic.
The powers are contained in the Withdrawal Bill. But after MPs voted for Mr Grieve’s amendment, ministers will not be allowed to use the powers until the Withdrawal and Implementation Bill has been passed.
What is it?
The final withdrawal agreement will have to be ratified as an international treaty. The government has to present international treaties to both houses of Parliament. If neither house raises objections, the treaty is passed and does not necessarily have to be debated or voted on. If there is an objection, ministers have 21 days to explain the merits of the treaty, before presenting it to Parliament again. This could technically be repeated multiple times.
Mr Davis has said the treaty will have to be ratified before the withdrawal agreement can “enter into force”.
It is unlikely that there would be a vote – or even a debate – on the treaty, seeing as the issues will have already been debated and voted on in the meaningful vote. Theoretically, Parliament could vote against the treaty, but it will not be able to amend it.
What’s left to decide?
The UK and EU have to agree on the terms of the UK’s departure – as well as what sort of trading relationship they will have after Brexit. The UK is hoping an agreement can be reached on both of these elements at the EU summit in October.
The government has promised a white paper setting out in detail what it wants from Brexit – but its publication has been delayed while wrangling goes on behind the scenes about what to put in it.
There is expected to be a “political declaration” on the framework for future UK-EU relations after the October summit. MPs will then be given a vote on the withdrawal agreement before it goes to the European Parliament for ratification.
But a number of sticking points remain – and all have to be resolved before the withdrawal agreement can be signed off and put to a vote.
Here are the main issues that need to be sorted out (there are a lot of smaller ones too – you can read more about those here).
This is the biggest sticking point.
Both sides have committed to avoiding the return of a hard border, including physical infrastructure or related checks and controls, between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
They want to achieve this by agreeing a comprehensive free trade deal with the continuation of open borders.
But that could be difficult if the UK government sticks to its policy of leaving the EU single market and customs union.
The UK government is working on two possible solutions – a “customs partnership”, which would see the UK collecting tariffs on behalf of the EU, and “maximum facilitation”, which would use new technology to track goods passing across the border.
The EU has previously rejected both ideas.
If all else fails, Brussels has proposed a “backstop” solution – which would see Northern Ireland stick to those rules of the customs union and single market that are required for cross-border co-operation to continue.
But the UK government is against this idea, saying it would effectively separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and create a border in the Irish Sea.
Mrs May also wants an insurance policy to maintain an invisible border if trade talks break down. She is expected to set out details of her “backstop” proposal in due course, having seen her previous suggestion rejected by Brussels.
The UK has set a lot of store by establishing a high level of co-operation on security issues, like counter-terrorism and the fight against organised crime, with the EU after Brexit.
But there are significant disagreements about how this will work – and the EU’s decision to exclude the UK from the Galileo satellite system on security grounds has poisoned the atmosphere, with the UK claiming it shows a lack of trust.
The UK thinks that co-operation on extradition, the British relationship with the EU crime-fighting agency Europol and the sharing of criminal records should be the subject of a separate security treaty which the two sides should begin negotiating straight away.
This is another issue that could bring the whole deal down, according to Michel Barnier.
The UK is committed to pulling out of the European Court of Justice, the mechanism used to settle disputes between member states by interpreting and enforcing single market rules.
The EU has proposed a joint committee made up of representatives appointed by London and Brussels. If they can’t solve a problem, it would be referred to the European Court of Justice.
The UK government likes the idea of a joint committee but not of the European Court of Justice having the final say.
British companies hold all sorts of personal data belonging to EU citizens, and the European Commission thinks that European data protection laws should continue to apply to it after Brexit.
The UK would like a comprehensive deal on data-sharing with the EU as part of the discussions about the future relationship, and is wary of agreeing divorce-related measures that could tie its hands.
Sharing information about tax
The EU wants the UK to share customs data for three years and information about certain taxes for five years after the end of the transition period.
This is how the Brexit process is meant to go – but the UK or the EU could pull the plug on talks at any time. And, in theory, the UK and the other 27 EU members could agree to change the timetable or even halt the process Brexit altogether.
As the European Commission likes to say, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.