Countdown to Brexit continues in the EU - whilst UK preparations are faltering

We have been reporting for over a year on the legal, regulatory and operational practicalities that have to be completed for an orderly Brexit. 

This now extends to the mobilisation of politicians and civil servants across the European Institutions and 27 remaining member states. 

The same cannot be said for either UK Government bodies - despite deploying thousands of civil servants to the task – nor for over half of UK businesses, according to the Bank of England.

EU progresses the constitutional steps needed for Brexit to happen

The EU, arguably, has a more straightforward task – once the negotiation process was complete, the ratification process for the Withdrawal Agreement is ‘relatively’ uncontentious or complicated.  On Thursday, Michel Barnier, European Commission Chief Negotiator stood in for European President, Jean-Claude Juncker - who is participating in the G20 right now – in an address to Members of the European Parliament.  He stressed the binary nature of the choices now open to the UK. 

“The time for negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration is over.  It is now time for ratification by the British Parliament, and by the European Parliament and Council.  Given the difficult circumstances of this negotiation, and given the extreme complexity of all the subjects related to the UK's withdrawal, the deal that is on the table – the draft Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration – this deal is the only and the best deal possible.”

And lest there be any doubt about the European Commission’s negotiating brief: “Obviously, to protect the rights of the citizens you represent – it was your priority and my priority – to protect the EU's interests, the integrity of the Single Market and the indivisibility of the four freedoms, and the autonomy of the European Union's decision-making.”

With all the negotiating power in the hands of the EU, it is little surprise that opposition to the terms of the Agreement is so strong and so widespread in the UK.  Meanwhile, Barnier feels that he has delivered his brief: “We insisted on first dealing with certain questions that are dear to this Parliament, such as citizens' rights, peace and stability in Ireland, and the financial settlement.”  He added that: “We succeeded together in this first major step, thanks to – from our side – the strong unity of the 27 Member States and all institutions.”

And his summary of the negotiations: “Simply, the two documents agreed on Sunday limit the negative consequences of Brexit for both sides - particularly for the 27 Member States of the Union.

“The Withdrawal Agreement brings legal certainty to all those people, companies, and regions who are worried about the consequences of the British decision to leave the European Union.

“The Political Declaration sets out the framework of our future relationship that we will negotiate as soon as possible.  

“With regards to the future relationship, the truth is that – given the British decision to leave the European Union and the Single Market – it cannot be the status quo in the future.  It cannot be business as usual and our duty is to say so, particularly to businesses who should be preparing themselves.”

UK constitutional steps needed for Brexit to happen

For the UK to leave under terms of the negotiated ‘deal’ – and it is clear that Europe has closed ranks so that the choice is “this deal or no-deal” – both Houses of Parliament have to vote to accept the Withdrawal Agreement.

The key vote is presently scheduled in the House of Commons for 11 December 2018.  Opposition is coming on both practical and constitutional issues

The Labour Party, together with the government's partners the UDP, believe that the UK's Chief Law Officer, Geoffrey Cox, has advised the government that the Northern Ireland "backstop" would continue indefinitely – and that is why the government is refusing to publish his legal advice on the EU Withdrawal Agreement in full.  It would shatter the ‘red line’ of having Northern Ireland under a different set of laws and regulations than the rest of the United Kingdom.

All Governments treat legal advice as ‘confidential’ – with MPs limited to questioning Mr Cox about it on Monday 3 December - when he makes a statement to the Commons at the start of five days of debate about the deal.

Keir Starmer MP - a former director of public prosecutions - said the opposition parties would press for “contempt of Parliament” proceedings if MPs are not shown the advice.  It would be up to Commons Speaker John Bercow to decide whether a debate and vote should be held.

Meanwhile further warnings are issued on lack of business and government preparations

The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, warned that: “most businesses are unprepared for a no-deal Brexit” leading him to call for a transition period to be agreed.  This will not be possible if the Withdrawal Agreement is rejected by Parliament and UK leaves at 23:00 GMT on 29 March 2019 with ‘no-deal’.

Carney was speaking after the Bank of England released its analysis suggesting the UK would be tipped into a recession that will be “worse than the 2008 financial crisis” if it quits the EU next March with no agreement in place.

Carney: “We know from our contacts with business - others know from their contacts - that less than half of the businesses in the country have initiated their contingency plans for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit.

“All the industries, all the infrastructure of the country, are they all ready at this point in time? As far as we can tell, the answer is no.”

Meanwhile, Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, this week told MPs there was no guarantee that data-sharing agreements and other cross-border crime-fighting tools would remain in place.  “A no-deal situation would have a real impact on our ability to work with our European partners to protect the public.”

UK agencies would no longer be integrally linked into systems for exchanging data - including criminal records, alerts on wanted suspects, DNA, fingerprints and airline passenger information.  Extradition requests will take longer, while cooperation on counter-terrorism, cyber security and illegal migration will be affected.

Ben Wallace, Minister of State for Security at the Home Office, sounded a more optimistic note.  The Withdrawal Agreement: “strikes the right balance to keep everyone safe…”  He believes it will allow UK and EU to negotiate: “an ambitious partnership that ensures we can continue to work with our European partners in tackling our shared threats.”

John ShuttleworthComment