The UK is expected to leave the EU on 31 January on the basis of the revised Withdrawal Agreement (WA). But before the WA can come into force, it needs to be ratified by both the UK and EU according to their own internal procedures.  

This Insight gives an overview of the steps needed to ensure ratification takes place by 31 January.

The Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration

Boris Johnson’s Government and the EU negotiated a revised WA in October 2019. The WA will be legally binding once it is ratified by both the UK and EU.

Alongside the WA, the UK and EU agreed a Political Declaration (PD) setting out the framework for the future UK-EU relationship. The PD is not a legally binding document and does not need to be ratified by the UK and EU.

How will the UK ratify the WA?

The UK Government will be able to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement once the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill has received Royal Assent. We explained this domestic process in a Library Insight in October 2019. The relevant clauses were renumbered when the Bill was reintroduced in December 2019, but their substance is unchanged.

The EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill completed its Parliamentary stages yesterday (22 January) and is expected to receive Royal Assent today (23 January).

How will the EU ratify the WA?

The process for EU ratification of the WA is set out in Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. This is a two-step process. The European Parliament must give its consent to the agreement. The Council of EU will then need to give its final approval to the agreement by a ‘qualified majority’. The Council of the EU is made up of ministerial representatives of each Member State.

European Parliament consent

The timing of the ratifications was an issue. The European Parliament (EP) said it would only give its consent for the WA once the UK ratification process was complete.

The EP’s Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) is responsible for drafting a resolution and recommendation on consent in relation to the WA. AFCO will hold an extraordinary meeting today (23 January). This will consider a draft resolution and adopt a recommendation on consent. The Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt has led work on the draft resolution. This recommends that the EP give its consent to the WA.  Ten other EP committees have also sent opinions to AFCO on the WA.

The consent vote on the WA will take place in the EP plenary session in Brussels on 29 January. The vote is scheduled to take place between 6pm and 6.15pm. The vote will be by a simple majority of MEPs voting. UK MEPs will be able to participate in the vote. This is likely to be one of their last acts as MEPs, as UK MEPs will lose their seats on exit day.

Final approval comes from the Council of the EU

The Council vote to give final approval to the WA will take place after the European Parliament vote. No Council meeting is scheduled between 29 and 31 January. It is expected that the Council will take the vote by a written procedure, whereby Council members agree to provide their votes in writing.  

The vote will be by ‘reinforced qualified majority’. Standard ‘qualified majority’ requires approval by 55% of Member States representing at least 65% of the total EU population. A ‘reinforced qualified majority’ requires 72% of Member States representing at least 65% of the population. This effectively means that representatives of at least 20 of the 27 remaining Member States will be required to approve the WA.

Under Article 50, the withdrawing Member State does not take part in votes on its withdrawal. As such, the UK will not take part in the Council vote on the WA.

The WA has already been approved by Member States’ leaders in the European Council. The Council vote is regarded as a formality.

The Council has already approved a draft decision on the conclusion of the WA Withdrawal Agreement.  

Notification of ratification

Article 185 of the WA provides that before the Agreement can come into force, both the EU and the UK need to send written notification to the depositary of the Agreement. The depositary of the Agreement is the Secretary-General of the Council. This notification must confirm that the UK and EU have completed their necessary internal procedures for ratification.

Entry into force of the Withdrawal Agreement

Article 185 also provides that the Agreement will enter into force on one of the following dates:

  • The day following the end of the extended Article 50 period, provided that the depositary has received written notification from both the UK and EU that their internal procedures have been completed
  • the first day of the month after the depositary has received the written notifications.

In both cases this date is expected to be 1 February. The UK would therefore have left the EU on the terms provided for by the WA at midnight Brussels time on 31 January (11pm UK time).

Further Reading

About the author: Stefano Fella is a senior researcher in international affairs and defence at the House of Commons Library, specialising in Brexit.

Photo: British and European flags in front of the Berlaymont building by Lieven Creemers.  Copyright: European Union, 2016 / image cropped.  Source: EC – Audiovisual Service.