Countdown to Brexit: 11 days – “All Fools Day”…where now with no end in sight?

Brexit is now scheduled and written into UK and EU law for 23:00 BST on Friday 12 April.

If the UK wishes to extend beyond 12 April, it will have to ask the European Council and “indicate a way forward”.  This is almost certain to involve the UK being required to hold European Parliamentary elections on 23 May – and needs the unanimous support of each of the remaining EU27 nations.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that patience was running out with the UK.  In an Italian television interview, Mr Juncker said that the EU wanted to see MPs reach an agreement about the terms of the UK's departure in the “coming hours and days”.

Today, 1 April, MPs will hold a second round of indicative votes to determine if there is a Brexit option that can secure the support of a majority in the House of Commons.  MPs will also be asked whether they want a third day of debate on indicative votes to take place on Wednesday 3 April.

In parallel, MPs debate the three Brexit-related e-Petitions that have achieved the required 100,000 votes starting at 4:30 in Westminster Hall.

Government Chief Whip, Julian Smith, looking at the difficulties on the Parliamentary process and options told the BBC that the Government ought to have admitted after the election that it would inevitably have to move to a softer Brexit, saying ministers should have been clearer about the consequences of losing their majority then.

Smith - and others in Government – have suggested that the prime minister might still put her deal back in front of MPs - perhaps as early as this week.  Whips are, hypothetically, the keepers of secrets inside government. But in these turbulent times, few conventions still apply.

This week in Parliament

Monday 1 April: the House of Commons Chamber, MPs will hold a second round of indicative votes and decide whether they want further time to debate on Wednesday 4 April.

Two Brexit-related Statutory Instruments: Animal Health, Seed Potatoes and Food; and Extraterritorial Application of Third Country Legislation, will also be debated in the Chamber.

Welsh Affairs Committee: questions Secretary of State, Alun Cairns and scrutinises the Government’s no-deal preparations.

Public Accounts Committee: hears from Cabinet Secretary and Head of the UK Civil Service, Sir Mark Sedwill.

MPs will debate three e-petitions relating to leaving the EU, including the petition seeking to revoke Article 50 which has attracted over 6 million signatures at 4:30pm in Westminster Hall,

 Tuesday 2 April: Foreign Affairs Committee will take evidence from Maya Lester, QC, as part of its inquiry into ‘Global Britain: The future of UK sanctions policy.’

MPs debate a Brexit-related Statutory Instrument on Geo-Blocking - dealing with geographical restrictions to online shopping.

 Wednesday 3 April: Exiting the EU Committee will hear from Secretary of State, Stephen Barclay, on ‘The progress of the UK’s negotiations on EU withdrawal: role of Parliament’…topical.

Treasury Committee: continues its scrutiny of the UK’s economic outlook as set out in Chancellor’s Spring Statement.

International Trade Committee holds two panels: experts on ‘Trade and the Commonwealth: Australia and New Zealand’ including Elizabeth Ames, Executive Director of the Australia-UK Chamber of Commerce; and questions Minister of State for Trade Policy, George Hollingbery, to follow up on its previous inquiry into 'UK trade policy transparency and scrutiny'.

Two Brexit-related SI’s scheduled for debate in the Commons: on notification of personal data breaches; and the second on trade in certain goods which could be used for capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Depending on the outcome of Monday's votes, it is possible a third Indicative Vote debate will be held on Brexit options in the Commons.

 Thursday 4 April: MPs ‘oral questions to the Department for Exiting the EU’ – an opportunity for Members to ask Ministers topical questions on the progress of the UK’s exit from the EU.

Easter Recess: for the House of Commons was scheduled 4–23 April 2019.  Given the timing of the new default Brexit date of 12 April – we anticipate an announcement from Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, amending the dates of Easter Recess.

And in case you missed – last week’s Brexit headlines

  • For the first time in over one-hundred years, British MPs voted to seize control of the Parliamentary timetable from the Government in a bid to break the deadlock over Brexit;

  • This led to a series of indicative votes on eight Brexit options.  None secured a majority.  Least favoured options will be eliminated and further debate on the rest continues Monday to see if a majority scenario emerges;

  • On Wednesday, MPs voted to change the UK’s ‘exit day’ to 12 April.  It almost stumbled when it was passed to the House of Lords for approval later that day – and a formal objection was raised on the grounds that, constitutionally, Statutory Instruments should be presented in time to allow scrutiny before a vote…and this convention has been ridden over roughshod in the chaos that is the Brexit process;

  • On Friday, Prime Minister Theresa May held a third vote seeking to approve only the Withdrawal Agreement part of her deal - it failed to pass by a margin of 58 votes;

  • Mrs May had offered to resign if MPs approved her Withdrawal Agreement last week.  Bookmakers’ odds suggest Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Dominic Raab - all of them Brexiteers – as frontrunners in a potential leadership contest;

  • The UK is now in the default scenario leaving the EU without a deal at 23:00 BST on 12 April - unless a further extension can be agreed with the EU – which requires UK participation in the European elections on May 23 - or unless Article 50 is ‘revoked’;

  • Patience with the UK has run out and there is no certainty that the EU would agree to a longer delay.  Germany thought to be more open to the idea, but France increasingly against;

  • The newly created ‘Independent Group’ of Remain-supporting British MPs plans to register as a political party named Change UK – discussions with other centrally-oriented political parties and individuals are progressing.

Background

8 motions have been proposed for debate on Monday 1 April by Parliament.  The Speaker will select some or all of them and voting will take place around 8:00pm this evening.  From the ‘Order Paper’  for 1 April with together with a short explanation:

(A)    Unilateral right of exit from backstop: That this House agrees that the UK shall leave the EU on 22 May 2019 with the Withdrawal Agreement amended to allow the UK unilaterally to exit the Northern Ireland backstop. Not chosen by Speaker for debate and vote.

(B)    No-deal in the absence of a Withdrawal Agreement: That this House agrees that, in the absence of a Withdrawal Agreement that can command the support of the House, the UK shall leave the EU on 12 April 2019 without a deal. Not chosen by Speaker for debate and vote.

(C)    Customs Union: That this House instructs the Government to: (1) ensure that any Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration negotiated with the EU must include, as a minimum, a commitment to negotiate a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU; and (2) enshrine this objective in primary legislation. Result 273 votes for; 276 against; majority lost by 3 votes.

(D)   Common Market 2.0: That this House – (1) directs Her Majesty’s Government to – (i) renegotiate the framework for the future relationship laid before the House on Monday 11 March 2019 with the title ‘Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom’ to provide that, on the conclusion of the Implementation Period and no later than 31 December 2020, the United Kingdom shall – (a) accede to the European Free Trade Association (Efta) having negotiated a derogation from Article 56(3) of the Efta Agreement to allow UK participation in a comprehensive customs arrangement with the European Union, (b) enter the Efta Pillar of the European Economic Area (EEA) and thereby render operational the United Kingdom’s continuing status as a party to the EEA Agreement and continuing participation in the Single Market, (c) agree relevant protocols relating to frictionless agri-food trade across the UK/EU border, (d) enter a comprehensive customs arrangement including a common external tariff, alignment with the Union Customs Code and an agreement on commercial policy, and which includes a UK say on future EU trade deals, at least until alternative arrangements that maintain frictionless trade with the European Union and no hard border on the island of Ireland have been agreed with the European Union; (ii) negotiate with the EU a legally binding Joint Instrument that confirms that, in accordance with Article 2 of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland of the Withdrawal Agreement, the implementation of all the provisions of paragraph 1 (i) of this motion would cause the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland to be superseded in full; (2) resolves to make support for the forthcoming European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill conditional upon the inclusion of provisions for a Political Declaration revised in accordance with the provisions of this motion to be the legally binding negotiating mandate for Her Majesty’s Government in the forthcoming negotiation of the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Result 261 votes for; 282 against; majority lost by 21 votes.

(E)    Confirmatory public vote: That this House will not allow in this Parliament the implementation and ratification of any withdrawal agreement and any framework for the future relationship unless and until they have been approved by the people of the United Kingdom in a confirmatory public vote. Result 280 votes for; 292 against; majority lost by 12 votes.

(F)    Public vote to prevent no deal: That this House considers that it would be appropriate to commit to the holding of a public vote if it were necessary to prevent the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a deal. Not chosen by Speaker for debate and vote.

(G)   Parliamentary Supremacy: That -(1) If, at midday on the second last Day before exit day, the condition specified in section 13(1)(d) of the Act (the passing of legislation approving a withdrawal agreement) is not satisfied, Her Majesty’s Government must immediately seek the agreement of the European Council under Article 50(3) of the Treaty to extend the date upon which the Treaties shall cease to apply to the United Kingdom; (2) If, at midday on the last Day before exit day, no agreement has been reached (pursuant to (1) above) to extend the date upon which the Treaties shall cease to apply to the United Kingdom, Her Majesty’s Government must immediately put a motion to the House of Commons asking it to approve ‘No Deal’; (3) If the House does not approve the motion at (2) above, Her Majesty’s Government must immediately ensure that the notice given to the European Council under Article 50 of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union is revoked in accordance with United Kingdom and European law; (4) If the United Kingdom’s notice under Article 50 is revoked pursuant to (3) above a Minister of Her Majesty’s Government shall cause an inquiry to be held under the Inquiries Act 2005 into the question whether a model of a future relationship with the European Union likely to be acceptable to the European Union is likely to have majority support in the United Kingdom; (5) If there is, a referendum shall be held on the question whether to trigger Article 50 and renegotiate that model; (6) The Inquiry under paragraph (4) shall start within three months of the revocation; and (7) References in this Motion to “Days” are to House of Commons sitting days; references to “exit day” are references to exit day as defined in the Act; references to the Act are to The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018; and references to the Treaty are to the Treaty on European Union. Result 191 votes for; 292 against; majority lost by 101 votes.

(H)   EFTA and EEA: That this House notes that the motion to agree the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between Her Majesty’s Government and the European Union was defeated on 29 March; further notes that the Government must, under the agreement made at the EU Council on 22 March, indicate a way forward for consideration by the EU by 12 April; acknowledges that this House has previously expressed its reluctance to leave the EU without an agreement and therefore calls on the Government to - (a) assert the UK’s existing rights and obligations as a signatory to the Treaty establishing the European Economic Area (b) indicate to the EU before 12 April that the UK intends to rejoin the European Free Trade Association at the earliest opportunity to make its rights and obligations as an EEA member operable (c) agree with the EU a further short extension to the UK’s membership of the EU during which accession to the EFTA pillar can be concluded and (d) negotiate with the EU additional protocols relating to the Northern Ireland border and agri-food trade. Not chosen by Speaker for debate and vote.

Notes on options - from soft to hard

Remain in the EU: Things stay as they are.  The UK continues paying into the budget but retains its rebate and keeps its opt-outs from the euro and the Schengen common travel area.  Free movement continues, as does membership of the customs union and single market.

Common Market 2.0: aka “Norway plus”.  This proposal has the support of soft Brexiteers on the Tory and Labour benches.  The UK would have the same close relationship to the EU that Norway does - but with the addition of a customs union.  UK leaves EU democratic, decision-making and institutions.  Remain within the single market and customs union.  Join the European Free Trade Association - whose current members are EU plus Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Iceland.  UK no longer be subject to the Common Agriculture Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy.  Freedom of movement between the UK and the EU continues. Requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be in place.

EFTA/EEA: per Common Market 2.0 plus UK remains in the single market but not the customs union - leaving it free to pursue its own trade policy.   UK would "seek agreement on new protocols relating to the Northern Ireland border and agri-food trade."

Customs Union: Britain leaves the single market and no longer subject to freedom of movement.  UK would negotiate "a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU."   Michel Barnier has said the EU would be open to negotiating a customs union with the UK — but the backstop would be non-negotiable.

No-deal: UK leaves the single market, customs union and all other EU structures and arrangements instantly.  Freedom of movement ends.  Tariffs and controls required between the UK and EU - including between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  EU is powerless to prevent a no-deal Brexit – but EU will not open trade talks until UK: settles its financial obligations to the bloc; ensured the protection of EU citizens' rights in the UK; and agreed to safeguards to protect the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland.