After the majority of the British population had voted for leaving the European Union in a referendum held on 23 June 2016 and the British parliament had given its required approval on 14 March 2017, the former Prime Minister Theresa May on 29 March 2017, formally informed the President of the European Council Donald Tusk about UK’s intention to leave the EU. As a consequence, Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union was invoked starting a two-year exit process which formally ends all the legal ties between the EU and the UK.
On 14 November 2018, EU´s chief negotiator Michel Barnier announced that the EU and the UK had mutually agreed on a draft withdrawal agreement. Simultaneously, a non-binding political declaration was published, setting the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK.
The ratification of the withdrawal agreement requires the approval of the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union as well as the British parliament. While the process of approving within the EU had advanced smoothly, the withdrawal agreement was rejected in the British House of Commons three times in total, most recent being on 29 March 2019.
A substantial point of criticism pertains to the so-called “Backstop” clause, which comes into effect if no alternative arrangement regarding the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is to be found within the transition period (until the 31st of December 2020, once renewable up to two years). According to the clause, a “hard” border between the EU and the UK should be prevented by establishing a common customs territory governed by the European Union’s customs rules. Moreover, Northern Ireland should continue to operate as per the regulations of the EU single market.
In further votes on 13 and 14 March 2019 the British parliament opposed a “no-deal exit”, a second referendum and approved a postponement of the initial Brexit date. At the EU special summit held on 10 April 2019, the EU27 and Mrs. May agreed to extend the Brexit-date until 31 October 2019.
Thus, the UK participated in the European Parliament election on 23 May. The Brexit party of Nigel Farage was the clear winner. It received 31. 6 percent of the votes. The pro-European Liberal Democrats became the second largest party with 20. 3 percent. The Conservatives finished fifth with only nine percent of the votes. The Labour Party also performed significantly worse than in 2014. It finished third with approximately 14 percent of the votes.
On 24 May 2019, Theresa May, who had been under constant pressure, announced that she will resign as the leader of the Conservative Party on7 June 2019. Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister, became her successor on 23 July 2019. As the new leader of the Conservative party, he was therefore nominated as the new British Prime Minister.
In his parliamentary speech Johnson called for a renegotiation of May´s negotiated withdrawal agreement with the EU: Otherwise, the UK would have to leave the union on 31 October 2019 without an agreement. However, the position of the EU remained unchanged. According to the current President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker a renegotiation is simply not possible. Nonetheless, Johnson is adamant that he will lead Britain out of the EU by all means on 31 October 2019.
On 27 August 2019, leading members of the opposition parties agreed on a joint approach against the no-deal-Brexit. They handed in a draft bill according to which the head of government would have to request an extension of the Brexit date (currently 31 October), if no withdrawal agreement was signed until 19 October 2019. On 3 September 2019 the majority of the House of Commons voted in favour of the bill. Six days later, it became law with the Queen´s ratification.
Boris Johnson who had always refused to apply for an extension of the current Brexit date, instead sought early elections. The citizens should decide on the issue of the Brexit date themselves. However, he lost his bid twice on 3 and 9 September 2019, as he could not achieve the mandatory two-third majority.
Along with Johnson´s second failed bid, the Parliament was prorogued for five weeks (instead of the usual three weeks). Hence, the members of Parliament should have returned on 14 October 2019, two and a half weeks before the Brexit date. Because of the unusual length, Johnson’s approach was widely criticized. Most recently, 75 members of Parliament filed the case before the Court of Session in Scotland, only to be dismissed. The decision had then been appealed at the Court of Appeal which ruled that the prorogation was unlawful. On 24 September 2019, the Supreme Court followed this ruling declaring the suspension of Parliament null, void and of no effect. Thus, the British Parliament reconvened on 25 September 2019.
What happens next?
There are currently several different possible scenarios for the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom resulting from these negotiations:
- Despite the failed votes, the EU and the UK are still ratifying the proposed exit agreement in its current or amended form. Thereafter, an interim arrangement would come into effect according to which the UK will leave the EU. However, it would be treated as a member of the EU, for the most part of the two year transition period. The negotiations on the future relationship will continue and be concluded based on the joint political declarations during the transition period.
- If the UK leaves the EU without any transitional arrangement in this case, legislative and administrative contingency measures have been and are being taken at EU, federal and state level. They should ensure the smooth functioning in the areas of residence, of social affairs, (including transitional arrangements concerning social, pension and health insurances), of transport and freight transport (further information can be found on www.hamburg.com/brexit under the respective category). These contingency measures are not to be understood as replacement of a permanent regulation, but it should mitigate the most severe consequences of a hard Brexit for all persons affected.
- The withdrawal of the UK will be postponed either by extending the Brexit date consensually in accordance with Article 50, or it will be suspended if the UK unilaterally withdraws the notice of resignation.
The future relationship between the EU and the UK are outlined in the co-called “political declaration” which formed part of the negotiations so far. It is highly probable that a free trade agreement would be sought which would facilitate the access to the European single market without being its member.