On Tuesday 26 February the Prime Minister set out the next stages of the Brexit process. Speaking from the dispatch box, she promised up to three key votes due to take place in the Commons on 12, 13 and 14 March.
Here we break down the next phase for Parliament and Brexit.
‘Meaningful vote 2.0’
The first commitment the Prime Minister made was to give the House of Commons another ‘meaningful vote’ on or before Tuesday 12 March. This would be a motion to approve a deal for the purposes of section 13(1) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The UK legally cannot ratify a withdrawal agreement unless (among other things) this motion passes.
We do not know whether or to what extent this deal will differ from the one the Prime Minister brought back in late November 2018. Discussions with the EU are ongoing. Substantive changes to the Withdrawal Agreement treaty itself are thought to be unlikely, but there may be changes to the non-binding Political Declaration. There could also be some supplementary documentation concerning how the Protocol on Northern Ireland is intended to operate.
When the last ‘meaningful vote’ was held in January, MPs had the opportunity to amend the Government’s approval motion. They will likely have that opportunity again. It has already been suggested that an amendment might be tabled to this motion to make approval conditional on a further ‘public vote’. An amended motion could not in itself, however, give rise to a further referendum. It could only prevent the Government from ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement without further primary legislation.
Any conditions MPs might attach to approval could affect the Government’s ability and/or willingness to proceed with the next stage in the process: the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. This primary legislation is also needed if an agreement is to be ratified before exit day (currently 29 March 2019).
A vote on leaving without a deal
If the Commons rejects a deal again, the Prime Minister has promised to bring forward a second motion for debate on Wednesday 13 March. We do not know what the text of this motion would be, but the Prime Minister said it would ask MPs if they support, “leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for a future relationship on 29 March.”
The outcome of this debate, and any resolution the House may adopt, would not be legally binding. It has no effect on Article 50 itself which is a matter of EU law. A Commons vote against leaving without a deal in this proposed debate does not in itself prevent the UK leaving without a deal.
It is not clear at this stage whether the Government will advocate leaving without a deal if this debate takes place. The Prime Minister was asked this question on Tuesday on four separate occasions (by Owen Smith, Jess Philips, Stella Creasey and Ian Murray) but answered neither in the affirmative nor the negative.
A vote on whether the Prime Minister should seek an extension
The third prong of the Prime Minister’s promise was that, if the Commons rejects, “leaving without a deal on 29 March,” she will then bring forward a motion for debate on Thursday 14 March. This motion would propose that she seek a “short extension” of Article 50’s two-year negotiating period. If the Commons approves this motion, the implication is that the Prime Minister would then be expected to ask the European Council for an extension until no later than the end of June 2019. Any longer extension would raise questions about the UK’s participation (or otherwise) in the European Parliamentary elections, as the new group of MEPs are due to sit in early July.
The outcome of this vote is (as with the ‘no-deal’ debate) not legally binding, although it would carry political force. For example, if MPs amended the motion to ask for a longer extension the Prime Minister would be under no legal obligation to seek that longer extension. Unlike under Yvette Cooper’s proposals, which we explained in an earlier Insight, this political compromise maintains for the Prime Minister full constitutional control over whether and for how long the UK might seek an extension of Article 50.
What will happen in these three key votes?
If the Commons approves ‘meaningful vote 2.0’, the other two votes won’t happen. Instead we would expect the Government to bring forward the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill to make domestic arrangements for the deal to be ratified and implemented. It is possible that the Government might ask for a short “technical extension” of Article 50, to ease the pressure on the parliamentary timetable for passing that Bill.
If the Commons approves “leaving without a deal on 29 March,” it would politically endorse the legal default outcome.
If the Commons approves a “short extension” the Prime Minister would then have to ask the other 27 Member States to agree to it. Such agreement would have to be unanimous on both the need for an extension and its length.
If an extension is agreed, the UK would continue to be a Member State until that new date expired. The Government would bring forward secondary legislation to change ‘exit day’. This would postpone a series of changes in domestic law that were otherwise anticipated for 29 March.
If an extension is not agreed, the legal default is that the UK leaves, with or without a deal on 29 March 2019. The only two ways a ‘no-deal’ exit could then be avoided would be the approval and ratification of a deal, or the revocation of the UK’s notification under Article 50. The Prime Minister re-iterated on Tuesday that revocation is something that she “shall not do”.
About the author: Graeme Cowie is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in Brexit.
Image: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor