With just a week before the 31st January deadline, Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed the EU Withdrawal Agreement which will take the UK out of the EU. Initially the Bill was introduced in November 2018 and endured a rocky life in Parliament. However, after a redraft in October 2019 and the Conservative election landslide in December 2019, the Bill finally cleared Parliament without amendments or new clauses on the January 23, 2020. It gained royal assent the following day. Over nearly 600 pages, the document details a number of important issues, but will by no means signify the end of the Brexit discussion.
Firstly, this Bill repealed The European Communities Act, a piece of legislation which was first adopted in 1972, allowing the UK to join the EU. However, it was restated immediately afterwards and will be in effect until the transition period ends on December 31. This is because although the UK now has formally ceased to be an EU member, it will now undergo the ‘transition period’ in which all parts of the UK will continue to follow EU rules and also contribute to the budget. Important decisions in areas such as security and trade are still yet to be made. This will mean if no trade deal is agreed by the end of the transition period (December 31), a no-deal scenario will still be a possibility.
The Divorce Bill
One of the enduring conditions of the Withdrawal Agreement which remained unchanged after Johnson’s negotiations is the so-called ‘divorce bill’. This means that even after the UK has left the EU, it will continue to make a series of payments as a financial settlement. It is hard to work out a precise figure for this settlement as some money has been paid using the UK’s usual budget contributions, but The BBC’s Reality Check has put the figure at around £30bn. The BBC also reported that the Office for Budget Responsibility believes this sum will be paid off by 2022, but the UK would still be making ‘relatively small payments’ to the EU until the 2060s. The money will be used to pay for outstanding financial commitments (like spending programmes which were agreed to whilst the UK was still a member state), and pre-Brexit financing liabilities (like the UK’s share of pensions).
The Irish Border
The Withdrawal Agreement Bill also deals with the issue of the Irish border. Whilst at 11pm on January 31, Northern Ireland left the EU alongside the other parts of the United Kingdom, the UK and EU have agreed there should not be border checks or controls on goods between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. To avoid this scenario, Northern Ireland still abides by and enforces EU agriculture and manufactured goods rules. Therefore, a customs and regulatory border has been established between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Details on these checks will become clear as negotiations continue, but this arrangement has attracted criticism as Johnson specifically stated during his election campaign that there would be “no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind” to trade across the Irish Sea.
Other clauses of the Bill include a guarantee that the three million EU citizens living in the UK, and one million UK citizens living in the EU still have their rights protected, replacing those which were previously assured by the EU. In addition, EU citizens living in the UK have been granted permanent residence rights. A clause also allows ministers, in certain policy areas, including Northern Ireland, the power to alter the law through secondary legislation without MPs voting.
Attention has also been paid to what is not in this Bill. For example, there is no longer a clause which enables ministers to ask for an extension of the transition period, workers’ rights are no longer included (the government says they will now become a separate bill), and additional opportunities for MPs to hold the government to account through checks and balances have been removed. In addition, leading up to the Bill being passed by Parliament, five amendments were rejected by MPs in order to ensure they would still meet the planned date of January 31. These included an amendment proposed by the Labour peer Lord Dubs which would enable child refugees to be reunited with their relatives in the UK, a commitment honoured in Theresa May’s original withdrawal agreement.
In the meantime, British citizens are still able to live, work and study in the EU, and EU citizens can do the same in the UK. Negotiations will begin after February 25, led by David Frost, the UK’s Chief Europe advisor. Whilst the Government released commemorative tea towels and 50 pence pieces, in reality, January 1, 2021 – an entire 4 years, 6 months and 9 days after the referendum (1653 days) – is when we will start to see significant changes.