Striking an agreement with Europe is difficult but legislating for it could be even harderby Maddy Thimont Jack / September 26, 2019 / Leave a comment
In the run up to the Conservative Party conference, Boris Johnson has maintained that his preferred Brexit outcome is to leave the EU with a deal on 31st October. But agreeing a deal with the EU is only the first step to delivering his goal. If the UK is to leave the EU in an orderly fashion on Halloween, then any deal will need to be implemented in UK law. The supreme court ruling on prorogation doesn’t change this.
Under the EU Withdrawal Act (passed in summer 2018) the government can only ratify an agreement with the EU if MPs have approved it in a “meaningful vote” and passed a Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) to implement the deal. But the timings this October will be very tight.
The European Council meeting is due to be held on 17th and 18th October—when we are most likely to find out whether Johnson has been able to successfully renegotiate aspects of the deal. But the deadline for passing a meaningful vote in the “Benn Act” is 19th October—otherwise, Johnson will be forced to go to Brussels to ask for an extension to Article 50. So the prime minister will need to hold a vote on the deal almost immediately to avoid the delay to Brexit he has repeatedly ruled out.
Even if MPs do approve a deal, getting the WAB through will not be easy. The bill will be long, complex and contain controversial powers. Ministers will need to be able to make payments to the EU under the “divorce settlement,” the bill will need to allow EU rules to continue to apply to the UK during the transition period, and it will need to include provisions to implement the Northern Irish backstop—or whatever replacement Johnson can find. MPs who are willing to support the deal in principle may change their mind when they see what it means once implemented.
There is also the very practical time challenge of scrutiny. Parliament spent 273 hours scrutinising the EU Withdrawal Act in 2017 and 2018 (the government’s flagship Brexit bill which copies EU law into UK law), closely looking through the extensive powers which the legislation gave to ministers. But between 19th and 31st October there are only eight scheduled sitting days.
It is technically possible for the bill to pass…