Brexit withdrawal agreement
United Kingdom (UK)
European Union (EU) and Euratom
|Type||Treaty setting out terms of withdrawal|
|Context||UK withdrawal from the EU (Brexit)|
October 2019 (revision)
|Signed||24 January 2020|
|Effective||1 February 2020|
|Condition||Ratification by the European Union (Council of the European Union after consent of the European Parliament), Euratom (Council of the European Union) and the United Kingdom (Parliament of the United Kingdom).|
|Signatories||Boris Johnson for the UK|
and Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen for the EU and Euratom,
|Depositary||Secretary General of the Council of the European Union|
|Languages||The 24 EU languages|
|Part of a series of articles on|
Glossary of terms
|EU portal · UK portal|
|Part of a series of articles on|
of the European Union
|EU portal · UK portal|
The Brexit withdrawal agreement, officially titled "Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community", is a treaty between the European Union (EU), Euratom, and the United Kingdom (UK), signed on 24 January 2020, setting the terms of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU and Euratom. The text of the treaty was published on 17 October 2019, and is a renegotiated version of an agreement published half a year earlier. The earlier version of the withdrawal agreement was rejected by the House of Commons on three occasions, leading to Queen Elizabeth II accepting the resignation of Theresa May as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and appointing Boris Johnson as the new Prime Minister on 24 July 2019.
The Parliament of the United Kingdom gave its approval to the then draft Agreement by enacting implementing legislation (the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020) on 23 January 2020. After the Agreement was signed, the Government of the United Kingdom issued and deposited Britain's instrument of ratification of the Agreement on 29 January 2020. The Agreement was ratified by the Council of the European Union on 30 January 2020, following the consent of the European Parliament on 29 January 2020. The United Kingdom's withdrawal from the Union took effect on 11 p.m. GMT on 31 January 2020, and at that moment the Withdrawal Agreement entered into force, as per its article 185.
The Agreement covers such matters as money, citizens' rights, border arrangements and dispute resolution. It also contains a transition period and an outline of the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Published on 14 November 2018, it was a result of the Brexit negotiations. The agreement was endorsed by the leaders of the 27 remaining EU countries and the British Government led by Prime Minister Theresa May, but faced opposition in the British parliament, whose approval was necessary for ratification. Approval by the European Parliament would also have been required. On 15 January 2019, the House of Commons rejected the withdrawal agreement by a vote of 432 to 202. The Commons rejected the Agreement again on 12 March 2019, on a vote of 391 to 242, and rejected a third time of 29 March 2019 by 344 votes to 286. On 22 October 2019 the revised withdrawal agreement negotiated by Boris Johnson's government cleared the first stage in Parliament, but Johnson paused the legislative process when the accelerated programme for approval failed to achieve the necessary support, and announced his intention to call a general election. On 23 January 2020, Parliament ratified the agreement by passing the Withdrawal Agreement Act; on 29 January 2020, the European Parliament gave its consent to the withdrawal agreement. It was subsequently concluded by the Council of the European Union on 30 January 2020.
The withdrawal agreement provided for a transition period until 31 December 2020, during which time the UK remained in the single market, in order to ensure frictionless trade until a long-term relationship was agreed. If no agreement was reached by this date, then the UK would have left the single market without a trade deal on 1 January 2021. Closely connected to the withdrawal agreement is a non-binding political declaration on the future EU–UK relationship.
2015 United Kingdom general election and 2016 Brexit referendum
Content (2018 version)
The withdrawal agreement, which runs to 599 pages, covers the following main areas:
- Money, particularly the division of assets and liabilities, and payment of any debt outstanding
- Citizens rights, both of British citizens in EU countries and vice versa
- Border arrangements and customs, particularly along the border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland
- The law, and the mechanisms for resolving disputes, currently vested with the European Court of Justice
The agreement also sets up a transitional period, which lasts until 31 December 2020 and can be extended once by mutual consent. During the transitional period, EU law will continue to apply to the UK (including participation in the European Economic Area, the single market, and the customs union), and the UK will continue to pay into the EU budget, but the UK will not be represented in the decision-making bodies of the EU. The transition period will give businesses time to adjust to the new situation and time for the British and EU governments to negotiate a new trade deal between the EU and UK.
On the Irish border question, there is a Northern Ireland Protocol (the "Backstop") appended to the agreement which sets a fall-back position that will only come into force should effective alternative arrangements fail to be demonstrated before the end of the transition period. If this happens, the UK will shadow the EU's Common external tariff and Northern Ireland will keep in aspects of the Single Market, until such a demonstration is achieved. Neither party can unilaterally withdraw from this customs union. The goal of this backstop agreement is to avoid a "hard" border in Ireland, where customs checks are necessary.
The governance will be through a Joint Committee with representatives of both the European Union and the British government. There will be a number of specialised committees reporting to the Joint Committee.
The withdrawal agreement also includes provisions for the UK to leave the Convention Defining the Statute of the European Schools, with the UK bound by the Convention and the accompanying regulations on Accredited European Schools until the end of the last academic year of the transition period, i.e. the end of the spring semester of 2020–2021.
The more important elements of the draft agreement are these:
The Agreement assists the arrangements of withdrawing the UK from the European Union and Euratom (Art. 1), provides a clear definition for the territorial scope of the United Kingdom (Art. 3), and assures the legal liability of the Agreement (Art. 4). Additionally, it states that by the end of the transition period, the UK shall be denied access to "any network, any information system and any database established on the basis of Union law" (Art. 8).
Citizens' rights: general provisions
The Agreement defines and provides the personal scope of citizens, family members, frontier workers, host states, and nationals. Article 11 deals with continuity of residence and Article 12 discusses non-discrimination (i.e., it would be prohibited to discriminate on grounds of nationality).
Rights and obligations
British nationals and European Union citizens, family members who are British nationals or European Union citizens and family members who are neither of those two shall maintain the right to reside in the host State (Art. 13). The host State may not limit or condition the persons for obtaining, retaining or losing residence rights (Art. 13). Persons with valid documentation[clarification needed] would not require entry and exit visas or equal formalities and would be permitted to leave or enter the host state without complications (Art. 14). In case the host State demands "family members who join the Union citizen or United Kingdom national after the end of the transition period to have an entry visa", the host State is required to grant necessary visas through an accelerated process in appropriate facilities free of charge (Art. 14). The Agreement further deals with the issuance of permanent residence permits during and after the transition period, as well as its restrictions. Moreover, it clarifies the rights of workers and self-employed individuals, and provides recognition and identification of professional qualifications.
This title discusses special cases, administrative cooperation, legal adaptations and development of Union laws.
Goods placed on the market
The Agreement defines the goods, services and the processes connected to them. It claims that any good or service that was lawfully placed in the market prior to the withdrawal from the Union may be further made available to the consumers in the UK or the Union States (Art. 40 & 41).
Ongoing customs procedures
This title addresses the custom procedures of goods moving from the customs territory of the UK to the customs territory of the Union and vice versa (Art. 47). The processes that start before the end of the transition period "shall be treated as an intra-Union movement regarding importation and exportation licensing requirements in Union law". The Agreement also addresses the ending of temporary storage or customs procedures (Art. 49).
Ongoing value added tax and excise duty matters
The VAT applies to goods that are exchanged between the Union and the UK. By way of derogation from previous Articles, the Title permits access to information systems that are necessary for the application or processing of the VAT (Art. 51).
There are ten annexes to the draft. The first is a protocol to maintain an open border between the EU and the UK on the island of Ireland (generally known as the 'Irish backstop'). The second covers the arrangements for a common customs territory to operate between the EU and the UK, until a technical solution can be found that delivers both an open border and independent customs policies. The third covers operations of the joint customs territory. The fourth covers 'good governance in the area of taxation, environmental protection, labour and social standards, state aid, competition, and state-owned undertakings. The fifth to eighth cover relevant provisions in EU law. The ninth and tenth details procedures arising from main sections of the draft.
Northern Ireland protocols (the Backstop and beyond)
The Northern Ireland Protocol, known familiarly as the "Irish backstop", was an annex to the November 2018 draft agreement that described the provisions to prevent a hard border in Ireland after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. The Protocol included a safety-net provision to handle the circumstances where satisfactory alternative arrangements remain to come into operation at the end of the transition period. This draft was replaced by a new Protocol that is described next.
Revisions in 2019
The Irish backstop is removed, and replaced by the protocol on Northern Ireland/Ireland. In this, the whole of the UK comes out of the EU Customs Union as a single customs territory, with Northern Ireland included in any future British trade deals. However, Northern Ireland adopts EU Single Market regulations on goods (including the EU VAT) in order to prevent a hard border and remains an entry point into the EU Customs Union. This leads to a de jure customs border on the island of Ireland, but a de facto customs border down the Irish Sea. EU tariffs (which ones dependent on a UK-EU FTA), collected by the UK on behalf of the EU, would be levied on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that are "at risk" of then being transported into and sold in the Republic of Ireland; if they ultimately aren't, then firms in Northern Ireland can claim rebates on goods where the UK had lower tariffs than the EU.
The protocol provides for application of EU-law in the area of goods (including electricity) and a role for the European Court of Justice with regards to procedures in case of non-compliance as well as the possibility and requirement for UK courts to ask for preliminary rulings on the application of EU law and related parts of the protocol.
This protocol also includes a unilateral exit mechanism for Northern Ireland: the Northern Ireland Assembly will vote every four years on whether to continue with these arrangements, for which a simple majority is required. These votes will occur two months before the end of each four-year period, with the first period starting at the end of December 2020 (when the transition period is expected to end). If the Assembly is suspended at the time, arrangements will be made for the MLAs to vote. If the Assembly expresses cross-community support in one of these periodic votes, then the protocol will apply for the next eight years instead of the usual four. However, if the Assembly votes against continuing with these arrangements, then there will be a two-year period for the UK and EU to agree to new arrangements.
The 2019 revisions also adjusted elements of the political declaration, replacing the word "adequate" with "appropriate" in regard to labour standards. According to Sam Lowe, trade fellow at the Centre for European Reform, the change excludes labour standards from dispute settlement mechanisms. In addition, the level playing field mechanism has been moved from the legally-binding withdrawal agreement to the political declaration, and the line in the political declaration that “the United Kingdom will consider aligning with union rules in relevant areas” has been removed.
Article 164 establishes a joint committee for the implementation of the agreement, which is co-chaired by the EU and the UK and has 6 specialized committees.
The reception of the agreement in the House of Commons ranged from cool to hostile and the vote was delayed more than a month. Prime Minister May won a no confidence motion in her own party, but the EU refused to accept any further changes.
British government resignations
On 15 November 2018, the day after the agreement was presented and received backing from the cabinet of the British government, several members of the government resigned, including Dominic Raab, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.
Contempt of Parliament
Following an unprecedented vote on 4 December 2018, MPs ruled that the British government was in contempt of parliament for refusing to provide to Parliament the full legal advice it had been given on the effect of its proposed terms for withdrawal. The key point within the advice covered the legal effect of the "backstop" agreement governing Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the UK, in regard to the customs border between the EU and UK, and its implications for the Good Friday agreement which had led to the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and specifically, whether the UK would be certain of being able to leave the EU in a practical sense, under the draft proposals.
The following day, the advice was published. The question asked was, "What is the legal effect of the UK agreeing to the Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement on Ireland and Northern Ireland in particular its effect in conjunction with Articles 5 and 184 of the main Withdrawal Agreement?" The advice given was that:
- The Protocol is binding on the UK and EU [para 3], and anticipates a final future resolution of the border and customs issues being reached [para 5,12,13]. But "the Protocol is intended to subsist even when negotiations have clearly broken down" [para 16] and "In conclusion, the current drafting of the Protocol ... does not provide for a mechanism that is likely to enable the UK lawfully to exit the UK wide customs union without a subsequent agreement. This remains the case even if parties are still negotiating many years later, and even if the parties believe that talks have clearly broken down and there is no prospect of a future relationship agreement." [para 30]
British Parliament votes
This section needs to be updated.December 2019)(
On 15 January 2019, the House of Commons voted down the Brexit withdrawal agreement by 230 votes, the largest vote against the United Kingdom government in history. The May government survived a confidence vote the following day. On 12 March 2019, the Commons voted down the agreement a second time by 149 votes, the fourth-largest defeat of the government in the history of the Commons. A third vote on the Brexit withdrawal agreement, widely expected to be held on 19 March 2019, was refused by the Speaker of the House of Commons on 18 March 2019 on the basis of a parliamentary convention dating from 2 April 1604 that prevents British governments from forcing the Commons to repeatedly vote on an issue that the Commons has already voted upon. A cut-down version of the withdrawal agreement, where the attached political declaration had been removed, passed the speaker's test for 'substantial change', so a third vote was held on 29 March 2019, but was voted down by 58 votes.
On 22 October 2019, the House of Commons agreed by 329 votes to 299 to give a Second Reading to the revised withdrawal agreement (negotiated by Boris Johnson earlier that month), but when the accelerated timetable which he proposed failed to gain the necessary parliamentary support, Johnson announced that the legislation would be paused.
On 20 December 2019, following the Conservative victory in the 2019 United Kingdom general election, the House of Commons passed the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill by a margin of 358–234. After amendments proposed by the House of Lords and ping-pong between the two houses, the bill received royal assent on 23 January 2020, enabling ratification on the British side.
European Union ratification
On the part of the European Union, the European Parliament gave its consent to the ratification of the Agreement also on 29 January 2020, and the Council of the European Union approved the conclusion of the Agreement on 30 January 2020 by written procedure. Accordingly, also on 30 January 2020, the European Union deposited its instrument of ratification of the Agreement, thus concluding the deal, and allowing it to enter into force at the moment of the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the Union at 11 p.m. GMT on 31 January 2020.
Political declaration of future relationship
The Declaration on Future European Union–United Kingdom Relations, also referred to as the Political Declaration, is a non-binding declaration that was negotiated and signed along with the binding and more comprehensive Withdrawal Agreement in connection with the withdrawal of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU), colloquially known as Brexit, and the planned end of the transitional period.
According to evidence presented by lobby group "British in Europe" (representing British citizens resident in EU countries) to the Brexit Select Committee of the House of Commons in June 2020, "as many as 23 EU member states [had] yet to implement systems to document the future rights of the estimated 1.2 million British citizens already living on the continent, who are in the dark over their future rights and obligations". "The UK launched its [registration] system for EU citizens last March , with more than 3.3 million people granted pre-settled or settled status to remain in the country after Brexit", the Committee was told.
Northern Ireland Protocol
On 6 September 2020, the Financial Times reported that the British government planned to draw up new legislation that would bypass the withdrawal agreement's Northern Ireland Protocol. The new law would give ministers the power to define what state aid needs to be reported to the EU, and define what products that at risk of being brought into Ireland from Northern Ireland (the withdrawal agreement states that in the absence of a mutual agreement, all products should be considered at risk). The government defended the move, saying the legislation was compliant with the protocol and merely "clarified" ambiguity in the protocol. Ursula von der Leyen warned Johnson not to break international law, saying that the UK's implementation of the withdrawal agreement was a "prerequisite for any future partnership". On 8 September, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis told the British Parliament that the government's planned Internal Market Bill will "break international law".
On 1 October 2020, the European Commission sent a letter of formal notice to the British government as the first step in an infringement procedure, as the UK's Internal Market Bill would be "in full contradiction" to the Northern Ireland Protocol if adopted as-is. Following discussions of the EU-UK Joint Committee on 8 December 2020, the two sides reached an agreement in principle on all issues regarding the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, and the UK agreed to withdraw the offending clauses of the Internal Market Bill.
- No-deal Brexit
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- The European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) – legally distinct from the EU but having the same membership, from which the United Kingdom also withdrew
- Trade negotiation between the UK and the EU
- United Kingdom - European Union FTA
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