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Brexit Withdrawal Agreement Bill Set to Be Brought Back to Parliament in First Week of June

Since last year, Theresa May has been trying to find a majority in Parliament for her Withdrawal Agreement Bill (“WAB”). Though she gained votes with every attempt, May has still not succeeded in getting the House of Commons to support it. With nothing much having changed since 29 March 2019, the most likely outcome is the defeat of the bill. For May, this will likely mean her removal and replacement with another leader.

As Hong Kong traders may know, the withdrawal agreement was first reached between Prime Minister Theresa May and the remaining EU-27 Heads of State and Government during a special European Council summit in November 2018. The UK needs a bill to implement this agreement, which is a legally binding treaty setting out the negotiated terms of the UK’s departure from the EU. If the bill does not succeed through Parliament, the default legal position is that the UK cannot ratify the deal. As such, the UK would in principle have to leave the EU on 31 October this year without a deal.

The bill contains three main clauses that have led to political debate:

  • A provision for the “divorce bill” or the financial settlement. This is the amount that the UK would agree to pay in settlement of their outstanding liabilities when they leave.
  • Any provision giving effect to the Irish backstop, which aims to ensure an open border on the island of Ireland if the UK leaves the EU without securing an all-encompassing deal. The Democratic Unionist Party in particular said it was “highly likely” that it would oppose May’s deal unless she can “demonstrate something new that addresses the problem of the backstop.”
  • A provision on the continuing role of EU institutions or EU law in the UK. The bill is set to keep the European Communities Act in force, provide for a closer relationship between the UK courts and the European court of Justice, and provide for the supremacy of the withdrawal agreement and some EU law over UK law.

On 14 May 2019, Downing Street announced that the new vote was set for the first week of June. A spokesperson specified that “it is imperative we [hold the vote] then if the UK is to leave the EU before the summer Parliamentary recess”, which is usually in mid-July. Passing the deal in July would allow the UK to leave on 1 August. Given that the bill has failed three times before, a real change is needed in order for it to be successful. For the past six weeks, cross-party discussions had been taking place in order to find a compromise. In particular, the Labour party favoured a plan with a permanent customs union with the EU and a potential second referendum.

On 17 May 2019, however, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announced that the discussions had “gone as far as they can,” blaming the government’s “increasing weakness and instability.” A Labour spokesperson had feared this outcome, sharing that Corbyn has “raised doubts over the credibility of government commitments, following statements by Conservative MPs and cabinet ministers seeking to replace the prime minister.” May, on the other hand, said that the discussions were inconclusive given the Labour’s party own inability to reach a common position between delivering Brexit or holding a second referendum.

As regards the upcoming vote on the WAB, if the deal is defeated, May cannot bring it back again without ending this parliamentary session and starting a new one, which would probably lead to her resignation. In anticipation, Mrs. May has promised to set a timetable for leaving Downing Street following the vote.

Meanwhile, Olly Robbins, the Prime Minister’s Brexit negotiator, provided EU officials with copies of agreed text that emerged from the cross-party talks. He seemed to indicate that a meeting of the minds had been found in some areas, including parliament’s role in future trade talks and commitments on social and environmental protections demanded by Labour. EU officials, however, remain sceptical about the more contentious issues, such as the permanent customs union or the possibility of a second referendum.

The early-June voting date is set after the European Parliament elections will take place (these are scheduled for 23 to 26 May 2019). Based on a poll conducted at the beginning of May, voting intentions were expressed as follows: 30% for the Brexit party (led by Nigel Farage), 24% for the Labour party (Corbyn), and 12% for the Conservatives (May). The results of this election are anticipated to influence the House of Commons vote, with some of May’s allies predicating that the Brexit party’s expected strong performance will put pressure on the Labour party to back Mrs. May’s deal. The Brexit party’s main objective is for the UK to leave the EU without a deal, and then trade with the EU on WTO terms.

With a fourth failing of the bill impending, the House of Commons will have to answer the much more fundamental question of whether it wants to pursue a no-deal option or whether, at the other extreme, it will pursue the revocation of Article 50 (i.e., stop Brexit altogether). In sum, MPs will have to decide “if they want to vote for Brexit or not.”

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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