In November 2018, after long and difficult negotiations, both negotiating teams agreed on legal texts of the Withdrawal agreement on the withdrawal of the UK from the EU and the Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Both texts were approved by the heads of the remaining 27 member states of the EU during a meeting of the European Council on 25 November, 2018 and the UK government expressed its agreement with the final texts as well. However, in order for the Withdrawal Agreement to become legally binding, it had to go through the ratification process both in the EU and the UK.
On the EU level, the European Council accepted both documents right away, the Council of the EU prepared and adopted the necessary decisions and the European Parliament stood ready to give its final consent to the signing of the agreement with the UK. However, on the UK’s side, the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration needed to be approved by the Parliament. After November 2018, both documents became the focus of intensive and turbulent discussions in the UK and British politics fell into unprecedented turmoil and division. During the early spring of 2019, the House of Commons voted on the Withdrawal Agreement three times and rejected it each time by an overwhelming majority. The House of Commons, however, rejected the option of leaving the EU without the Withdrawal Agreement (the “no deal” scenario) as well, and obliged the government to request an extension of the withdrawal period beyond the original date set for Brexit (i.e. beyond 29 March, 2019).
On the basis of the first request by British Prime Minister Theresa May, the European Council extended the withdrawal period only a little. The extension was intended to be only technical and according to the Prime Minister’s assurances it should have given the UK the time needed to complete all the formalities of the ratification process. However, since the process was not completed in time, the Prime Minister requested a second extension and the European Council gave the UK time until 31 October, 2019 to complete the ratification process. But it soon became apparent that the UK would not be able to finish the internal processes in time. Therefore, the European Council agreed on a third (and last) extension of the withdrawal period until 31 January, 2020.
After the second extension, the situation in the UK became even more complicated and with the new Prime Minister in July (Boris Johnson took the seat) came a substantial change in the government’s Brexit strategy. Some parts of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration were re-negotiated, but the House of Commons remained indecisive. For that reason, general elections were called on 12 December, 2019 and the Parliament was dissolved. Boris Johnson and his Conservative party won the elections and their new absolute majority in the House of Commons allowed them to pass the necessary legislation and complete ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement. The Withdrawal Agreement entered into force on 1 February, 2020 and the UK is no longer a member state of the EU.
The Agreement regulates all key aspects of the UK’s departure from the EU and sets forth the basis for the smoothest possible transition from an EU member state to a third country. The agreement has 185 articles and 3 protocols dedicated to three selected territories that, for various reasons, require a specific approach – i.e., Northern Ireland and Ireland, Cyprus and Gibraltar.
The agreement primarily regulates citizens’ rights, namely the status of UK citizens living in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK at the date of withdrawal. It also addresses a number of other issues related to the withdrawal, where there is a need to properly terminate or temporarily modify various specific relations and ongoing processes between the UK and the EU. These include issues such as the regime of goods placed on the market, ongoing judicial and administrative procedures (including procurement procedures, customs and tax procedures, police and judicial cooperation, etc.), intellectual property rights, data protection and termination of employment of UK representatives in EU institutions.
It also provides for financial compensation between the UK and the EU, according to which both sides are obliged to honour their financial commitments undertaken over the period of the UK’s membership. The UK will continue to contribute to the Union budget in accordance with the Multiannual Financial Framework 2014-2020 until the end of 2020. Therefore, the UK’s departure should not have an immediate impact on the current programming period. In addition, in relation to the implementation of EU programmes from both the current and previous programming periods, the Agreement provides that the relevant EU legislation will continue to apply to the UK after the end of the transition period until the closure of these programmes.
Finally, there are provisions on the governance of the entire Agreement, i.e. the rules for its monitoring, implementation and interpretation. The Joint Committee, composed of representatives of the UK and the EU, will be the key monitoring body and will adopt decisions and recommendations on the interpretation and implementation of the Agreement. Disputes between the UK and the EU arising from the Agreement shall be handled either by the Joint Committee or an arbitration panel. Disputes concerning the interpretation of EU law will be referred to the Court of Justice of the EU for judgment.
The hardest part of the negotiating process was the question of setting up a border regime between the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland. As previously agreed, the “Irish backstop” was supposed to be a temporary measure applicable only until an agreement on future relationship laying down the new Irish border regime is reached. The Protocol now lays down a permanent arrangement that avoids the creation of a “hard border” on the Irish island, prevents regulatory and customs controls, protects the island economy and the integrity of both the EU and the UK.
A very important part of the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement is the establishment of a transition period, which primarily aims to provide more time to negotiate the regime for the future relationship between the UK and the EU and to take all necessary measures and set up new processes. The transition period will extend from the Withdrawal Agreement’s entry into force to no later than 31 December, 2020 and may be extended for up to one or two years. The UK will formally become a third country after the date of withdrawal but during the transition period will be treated as a member state of the EU, to whom all EU law is still applicable.
Both the UK and the EU are interested in a very ambitious and deep future partnership in a number of areas, notably trade, police and judicial cooperation and security and foreign policy. The declaration sets out the basic framework for this partnership and will serve as a starting point for negotiations on the details of the future relationship and the level of cooperation in each area. The basic principles that will determine the direction of negotiations are preserving the integrity of the single market and decision-making autonomy of the EU while maintaining the unity of the British market and allowing the UK to conduct its own independent trade policy.