On 7 January, the Withdrawal Agreement Bill entered the Committee Stage of debates. This involves the House of Commons debating the arrangements and laws which will be put into place to allow the UK to withdraw from the European Union on 31 January 2020. The Bill passed the previous round of debates with ease; arguably an unsurprising outcome given the Conservatives’ majority government hold.

Three new clauses were proposed during the Committee Stage – New Clauses 5 (to allow EU citizens residing in the UK before “exit day” the right to permanent residence), 18 (to ensure EU citizens benefitting from citizens’ rights protections are able to register as UK citizens), and 34 (setting out a right to appeal settled status decisions) – all of which were voted down.

The Withdrawal Bill is due to enter the House of Lords for the next stage of debates on 13 January.

Deadlines

As it currently stands, the UK will leave the EU on 31 January, after which we enter a ‘transition phase’ where we will be bound by EU laws and must contribute to the budget with no say on how the Union is run. This transition phase is due to last until 31 December 2020 and Johnson is currently in the process of writing a law that will make it illegal to request an extension going into 2021.

EU rulers argue this isn't a sufficient timeframe to complete the negotiations: the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, stated it will be “basically impossible” to fully negotiate the future relationship between the UK and EU in just 11 months.

Instead, she suggested that progress should be reviewed again “before summer” to consider whether more time will be needed.

Future Relationship

Ursula von der Leyen outlined her ideal Brexit as a relationship with “zero tariffs, zero quotas, and zero dumping,” and argued, “without the free movement of people, you cannot have the free movement of capital, goods, and services." She also highlighted the need for a partnership between the EU and UK covering security and the ability to combat threats “ranging from terrorism to cyber-security to counter-intelligence”.

The UK government, however, is likely to inform von der Leyen they will not be seeking a deal based on close alignment with the EU and want “a new deal that takes back control”, with the ability to strike trade agreements outside of the EU without restriction.

Trade

Our ability to trade with the EU and other countries is a serious issue with regard to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Until 31 December 2020, the UK will remain a part of the EU single market and customs union, however, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives are likely to want to devolve this as quickly as possible as it involves the UK continuing to pay for single market membership without a say in the rules.

According to Johnson, the ideal future trading between the UK and EU would reflect the agreement between the EU and Canada; involving a significant increase in trade barriers. This type of relationship could cause problems with Ireland if hard borders and trade checks are required.

Although it’s not expected that the Withdrawal Bill will cover every aspect of the future trading relationship between the UK and EU, it is important that some ideas are clarified as, despite Johnson’s claim that “here come the good times”, an unclear or incomplete trade agreement could mean serious trouble for the UK economy.

Thankfully, the Withdrawal Agreement does include provisions for a “backstop” trade agreement which will come into play if the UK and EU cannot come up with a more effective version. This would involve a “single customs territory” with virtually no tariffs or trade restrictions between the UK and EU until a more thorough and long-lasting agreement can be established.

Ireland

Ireland has been a big issue within the Brexit debates so far, with earlier deals being voted down due to the controversial ‘Irish Backstop’ and customs border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which will remain a part of the EU and is separate from Northern Ireland).

Currently, the Withdrawal Agreement states Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK customs territory, however, checks and controls will apply when “at risk” goods (a full definition of this is yet to be established) cross the border between England and Northern Ireland.

This involves the receiver of the “at risk” goods in Northern Ireland paying a tariff which will be refunded if the goods remain in Northern Ireland, therefore avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and a possible breach of the Good Friday Agreement.

The agreement in this form means Northern Ireland will need to maintain EU standards and regulations regarding the goods crossing into their territory rather than matching any new UK standards, in order to maintain the “all-island regulatory zone” proposed in the Withdrawal Agreement. In addition, VAT on goods (but not services) in Northern Ireland will need to match EU levels. This should mean that the VAT rates on goods in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland remain the same, so neither side has an unfair advantage over the other.

For individual travellers, there will be no baggage checks on any borders, nor will you need to pay to send goods to other individuals.

The agreements made under the Withdrawal Bill will be evaluated four years after the end of the transition period and the Northern Ireland Assembly will be able to vote on whether the protocol is working, or put suggestions forward to the UK and EU leaders on how to improve the arrangement.

Citizen's Rights

For now, EU nationals living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU can retain the residency and social security rights they’ve been enjoying so far, with the same freedom to move and live throughout the UK and EU being maintained during the transition period.

After the transition period ends, the Withdrawal Agreement will allow those citizens to remain and apply for permanent residence after 5 years.

Non-British family members of UK nationals currently living in the EEA (or living in the EEA on ‘exit day’) will also be protected under the Withdrawal Agreement, with provisions to ensure those who are returning to the UK can also bring their close family members, regardless of the nationality of those members. This safeguard will be in place until 29 March 2022, after which non-British family members will need to apply to enter the UK in accordance with existing immigration rules. Different rules will apply to refugees.

At the moment, it’s not clear whether UK citizens who have successfully applied for permanent residence in an EU country will be able to enjoy the same freedom of movement throughout the EU after the transition period has ended as they currently can.

This will be discussed in more detail during the transition period.

Travel

On 3 April 2019, the EU agreed to ad the UK to their list of visa-exempt countries, which means that UK citizens will be able to travel to the EU for up to 90 days within any 180-day period without needing to apply for a visa. This offer is conditional on the UK replicating the agreement. Border guards will also be entitled to ask travellers for additional information including the reason for and duration of their stay. Travellers from the UK to any EU country will need to ensure their passports are valid for a minimum of three months after the final day of their visit.

Worker’s Rights

Another contested issue in the Brexit negotiations is that of workers’ rights.

A change since Theresa May’s proposed deal from last year saw provisions relating to workers’ rights (as well as environmental protections) moved from the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement to the new Political Declaration: a non-binding document effectively setting out a ‘blueprint’ for the future relationship between the UK and EU.

This means that any agreements on the protection of workers’ rights would not be legally binding on the UK, a move which Labour claimed may “risk triggering a race to the bottom on rights and protections… cutting environmental standards and workers’ rights”.

While Theresa May’s deal included provisions stating the UK and EU should work together to improve both employment and environmental standards, Johnson’s version simply agrees to maintain existing standards during the transition period, with the goal to ‘build upon’ those standards after we exit the European Union removed from the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement.

That said, the Political Declaration is still likely to hold some weight, with the possibility of serious practical and political barriers being raised should the UK choose to ignore the content in the future. What’s more, the Withdrawal Agreement includes a clause emphasising the importance of both the UK and EU adhering to the Political Declaration in “their best endeavours, in good faith and in full respect of their respective legal orders…”, so some protection should still exist.

The items included in the Political Declaration relating to workers’ rights include the promise to create a “level playing field”, in which the UK agreed to maintain a close alignment with EU workers’ rights; keeping the same high standards of available state aid, restrictions on competition, standards of employment, and “relevant tax matters”. Protections with regards to discrimination and equal rights in the workplace have been kept in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Money and Divorce Bill

Back in December 2017, Theresa May announced the UK and EU had agreed “the scope of commitments, and methods for valuations and adjustments” for calculating how much the UK's ‘divorce bill’ to the EU will cost. These calculations include the UK’s contributions to EU annual budgets until we fully leave the Union, the payment of all outstanding commitments, and any additional financial liabilities the UK owes the EU up to the end of 2020.

It will also include payment to implement customs arrangements for Ireland and contributions to citizens’ rights.

Although Boris Johnson has changed a number of aspects since May’s proposed deal, the divorce bill is currently unchanged. However, existing estimates for the divorce bill's final figure will need to be adjusted and will take time to calculate, as contributions to the EU budget are subject to a rebate (or discount) and don't include money that we get back from the Union.

To put this into context, the UK’s EU Membership Fee in 2018 would have been £17.4 billion, however, we received a rebate of £4.2 billion. In addition, the EU spent £4.3 billion on the public sector in the UK in 2018 plus additional, unspecified amounts were paid directly to the UK’s private sector, so it’s not always straightforward to come up with a concrete figure for how much we put into the EU budget vs how much we take out.

Laws

The Withdrawal Agreement includes provisions to allow some European laws to be kept by the UK even after Brexit has completed. This will allow the UK to maintain usual standards of living even after we exit the European Union as, after 47 years of membership, our laws are deeply enshrined in EU regulations and rewriting every EU-influenced law will take more time than is available if we are to leave the EU before 2021.

Next Steps

The current form of the Withdrawal Agreement has been doing well so far in the House of Commons and will be ready to move to the House of Lords on Monday 13 January (as Parliament doesn’t sit on a Friday). Assuming the Agreement passes these next stages - which Boris Johnson clearly expects it to based on his assertions that the “oven-ready deal I talked about… already had its plastic covering pierced and has been placed in the microwave.” - any final changes will be debated on 27 January before the Agreement is granted Royal Assent and converted into UK law.

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