As of 11pm (midnight central European time) on the 31st January 2020 the UK left the European Union, 47 years after it first acceded to the European Economic Community. We are now in a ‘transitional period’ in terms of our relationship with the EU. This period runs to 31 December 2020, as provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement reached between the UK and the EU in October 2019.
Since January, the UK has been able to negotiate its future trading relationship with other countries around the world. If negotiations cannot be successfully concluded, there will be a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. This insight gives a guide to the withdrawal agreement and the expiry of the transition period.
The EU Withdrawal Agreement itself is a legally binding document. It sets out terms for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, running to more than 500 pages, including initial agreements on citizens’ rights, the UK’s financial obligations to the EU and the Northern Ireland protocol, establishing arrangements for retaining an open border on the island of Ireland. The Withdrawal Agreement was agreed in its final form by the European Council on 19 October 2019, as confirmed in the statement that political agreement had been reached and that the United Kingdom had concluded an agreement with the European Union under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union.
The Withdrawal Agreement is supplemented by the Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the Declaration by Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland concerning the operation of the ‘Democratic consent in Northern Ireland’ provision of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. The Political Declaration aims to establish “the parameters of an ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership across trade and economic co-operation with a comprehensive and balanced Free Trade Agreement at its core”. It sets the tone and provides the framework for the detailed and complex negotiations that have followed in which the UK and EU have been seeking to reach agreement on a free trade agreement.
The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 (the 2020 Act) gives effect to the Withdrawal Agreement. The 2020 Act, which received Royal Assent on 23 January 2020, following its passage through the UK Parliament:
This has been a period for negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. During the transition period, the UK has remained in the EU’s single market and customs union, and has still contributed to the EU budget, with free movement of citizens retained for this period, but it has no longer been represented in the EU’s decision-making bodies, including the European Parliament.
The Withdrawal Agreement included an option to extend the transitional period, to avoid a ‘no-deal’ Brexit if agreement cannot be reached between the EU and UK by 31 December 2020. Such an extension would have had to have been requested by July 2020. Following a statement by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson that he would not use this option and that 11 months was sufficient to agree a comprehensive deal, the UK Government inserted a provision in the 2020 Act to prohibit a UK Minister seeking such an extension, and an extension has not been sought.
It remains to be seen whether a deal can be reached in the transition period, but the possibility of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit remains, as the countdown to 31st December 2020 continues.
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