Countdown to Brexit: 3 days – Squeak...Theresa May must now decide as Brexit options are further squeezed between Parliament and the European Union

At 10:38 last night, MP Yvette Cooper’s ‘European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill’ passed into law, receiving Royal Assent in record time.   The House of Lords spent the day scrutinising the Bill, added 5 amendments, and passed it back to the Commons for finalisation by an overwhelming majority.

At 9:00 The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, invited Cooper to ‘move’ the Bill as amended.  In so doing she said: “I should be clear at the beginning that I support all five amendments from the Lords…I thank the Lords for proceeding so swiftly in these unprecedented circumstances, with only four days to go until the country could end up leaving without a deal - with all the serious implications for manufacturing, small businesses, medicine supplies, food prices, farming and transport - and with only two days before the important European Council, which needs to consider an extension to article 50.”

The Bill was bitterly opposed by MP Brexiteers led by Sir William Cash, Sir Bernard Jenkin and John Redwood.  However, it passed by a majority of 396 votes in favour to 83 votes against.  The amendments passed with substantially the same margins (392:85; and 390:81).

The No. 5 Act restricts the Prime Minister’s discretion about whether and when to seek an extension to the two-year negotiating period under Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union.

The Prime Minister pre-empted the Act by writing to the European Council to request an extension to Article 50 until 30 June 2019.

The Commons is technically now able to insist that the Prime Minister seeks an extension to a different date from the one she originally proposed – but unlikely to do this ahead of the European Council meeting scheduled for 6:00pm in Brussels tomorrow, 10 April.

The Act provides a further role for the Commons in the event that the European Council does not agree to the Prime Minister’s request, but proposes an alternative date.  In those circumstances, the Prime Minister will have to seek further Commons approval before agreeing to that revised date and thereby giving effect to it in EU law.

The Act acknowledges that the ‘two-year period under Article 50 cannot be extended unilaterally’.  Even if the UK “requests” an extension, it can only happen by way of a “unanimous decision” of the European Council.  Any extension, and any new date of withdrawal, would need to be agreed to by the Governments of all 27 other Member States of the EU.

There is an ironic twist and risk inherent in the Act.  The EU may well propose a date other than 30 June – or places terms and conditions on any further extension beyond the present default legal exit date of 23:00 BST on Friday 12 April.  Under the ‘Cooper’ Act the Prime Minister will have to seek and get approval in Parliament within 2 working days, confirm this to Europe, and trigger and pass the final changes to UK Brexit legislation.  One accident, one slip, one missed communication, one leak in the roof of the House of Commons – and the UK leaves the EU with no-deal.

In our look at the week ahead in Parliament, yesterday, we noted the wry comment from Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom.  Friday is scheduled as a ‘non-sitting’ day - and there was no business planned for the House.  Leadson to MPs: “it is likely that we may need to sit on Friday.”

Theresa May set off for meetings with in Germany with the Chancellor and France with the President ahead of tomorrow’s European Council meeting.

Michel Barnier, following his visit to Ireland, yesterday, was in Luxembourg to brief a meeting of EU Ministers: "The Withdrawal Agreement is not going to be reopened, is not up for negotiation again. That continues to be the case.

"The Political Declaration, which will set the framework for future relations, can be improved, we can provide an increased level of ambition if that is the wish of the UK.

"The duration of an extension - it has got to be in line with the purpose of any such extension,"

The cross-party talks between the Government and Labour Party remain at an ‘impasse’.  The Government has not accepted Labour's ‘customs union’ - but there has been some move towards changing the non-binding political declaration.  Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said there had been no change in the government's "red lines".  This being the case and clearly known to EU27 Leaders, they are unlike to accept that Theresa May has achieved the key condition of the previous granting of a Brexit delay to 12 April – achieve a majority vote in Parliament for the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ precisely as negotiated and signed off by the Government in November 2018.

No surprise that Brexit preparations continue apace.  The EU announced, yesterday that it will support European farmers in a ‘no-deal’ scenario.

European Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan, at a press conference in Brussels said that while the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between the EU and the UK remains the best possible outcome, the EU is prepared for a possible ‘no-deal’ scenario for agriculture.

The EU has the interests of remaining nations and is focused on protecting the agriculture and farming interests of and for EU citizens.  The Common Agricultural Policy presently has tools that can be ‘activated in the event of market disturbances’ and can ‘act as safety nets’ - such as public intervention, private storage, crisis prevention and risk management.

The European Commission has used such measures in the past - for example during the 2014-2016 period to address market imbalance and to help farmers in short term cash flow difficulties.

Hogan: “Today, we are talking about a ‘no-deal’ scenario - in which case what we can say with certainty is that there will be significant disruption to certain agricultural markets…we have come to the conclusion that the European Commission has a legal obligation to intervene and we will.  Early intervention has the benefit of providing not alone support to farmers, but gives confidence to the market of the Commission's commitment to the agri-food sector”.

Last week, the UK has published its no-deal tariff tables – they will apply to the whole world including the EU once Britain is no longer a member of the free-trade bloc.  This means tariffs of up to 60% on some imports. 

This allowed the European Commission on Monday its ‘Market Access Database’ with detailed information on the rules that the UK would apply on its imports from the EU in the event of a ‘no-deal scenario – or leaving the customs union and single market at the end of a transition period.  The database contains information for 121 countries - and as of today, it also provides the same level of information for exports to the UK as a ‘third country’ as for any other EU trade partners such as the US or China.

References

https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2019-04-08/debates/FD74173A-8CB8-46CC-A39F-953A31E2F6AE/EuropeanUnion(Withdrawal)(No5)Bill

http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-19-2050_en.htm

Ireland: https://www.agriculture.gov.ie/agri-foodindustry/tradeimportsexports/importofanimalsandanimalproducts/

EU Market Access Database http://madb.europa.eu/madb/indexPubli.htm

https://www.rte.ie/news/europe/2019/0409/1041555-brexit-europe/

Photo:  Getty Images