Brexit 5: It’s the final countdown

Queen’s speech

During her speech to the UK Parliament on 19th December, the Queen disclosed the newly elected UK Government’s agenda. Its top priority will be to deliver Britain’s departure from the EU on January 31st 2020, and to seek a future relationship with Brussels based on a free trade agreement. Britain will also begin trade negotiations “with other leading global economies”.

Of the thirty bills mentioned by the Queen during her speech, seven concern Brexit and cover the withdrawal agreement, fisheries, trade, agriculture, financial services, immigration and private international law. The opposition has responded to the European (Withdrawal Agreement) Union Bill with concern as the text has been modified since Boris Johnson last presented it to the Parliament in October.

‘Get Brexit done’

After his landslide victory in the General Election on 12th December, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in a hurry to have the Withdrawal Agreement Bill approved by the UK Parliament and to leave the EU on 31st January. Today the Bill passed its first hurdle in the Commons, with MPs backing the Prime Minister’s deal with the EU by 358 votes to 234, a majority of 124. MPs have been given a further three days – 7, 8 and 9 January – to continue the debate on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in the Commons. Mr Johnson hopes to have the agreement ratified by mid-January, and to finalise any trade discussions with the EU by December 2020. This was the deadline negotiated by Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, for a transition period in which in which the UK will remain in the EU single market and customs union until they both reach a deal on their post-Brexit relationship. She had originally requested a two-year transition but was granted 21 months with an option to extend for up to another two years.

This is proving contentious, as Mr Johnson plans to outlaw the possibility of extending this deadline further. “Our manifesto made clear that we will not extend the implementation period and the new Withdrawal Agreement Bill will legally prohibit government agreeing to any extension”, said a senior governmental official. This tactic aims to ensure that the EU will agree to a comprehensive trade deal by then or face again the cliff-edge possibility of no deal.

UK has more to lose, warns von der Leyen

Meanwhile, new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has stated that the UK will be hurt the most if officials fail to meet the December 2020 deadline to reach a trade deal. “That will clearly harm our interests, but it will clearly impact more the UK”, declared von der Leyen.

The consensus in Brussels is that December 2020 is an unrealistic timeframe to reach a trade agreement as it would only leave UK and EU officials 10 to 11 months to reach a deal when it usually takes several years to finalise these agreements.

The most likely outcome is that the UK and the EU will agree to a basic trade agreement by the end of 2020 and will then spend several years discussing the technical details of their commercial and trade relations.

UK Inferior courts will be able to revoke EU regulations

The UK will have to address additional complications if it is to reach a successful deal with the EU. Johnson is determined to establish a free trade agreement with the US as soon as possible. However, it is expected that the UK will have to considerably loosen its legislation on agricultural and food standards to be able to strike this deal. This in turn will complicate matters further to reach an agreement with the EU, as the bloc is infamously for strict and high standards on food.

Proof of Mr Johnson’s disposition to diverge from EU regulations has been reported this week when it was announced that the Government plans to allow UK lower courts to revoke EU rulings as part of the new Withdrawal Agreement Bill. The Government aims to avoid a blocked legal system at the Supreme Court level, which would make the UK stay bound to EU rulings for many years. The move has been interpreted by many as a clear sign of the UK Government’s intention to get rid of strict EU regulations on workers’ rights, the environment and food standards.

And meanwhile back in Scotland.

A week after the UK general election results were out, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, has requested powers to hold a new Scottish independence referendum. Sturgeon claims that her remarkable victory is a clear mandate to call for a new independence vote for Scotland.

Her plans have not been well received by 10 Downing Street, and Boris Johnson has reportedly vowed to avoid the same ‘mistake’ made by former Prime Minister, David Cameron, who allowed Scotland to hold an independence referendum in 2014. On that occasion, 44.70% of Scottish citizens voted for independence and 55.30% voted to remain part of the UK. It is possible however that five years later, with the UK having voted to leave the EU – while every region in Scotland voted to stay – that the results could be reversed.

The Whitehouse team are experts in the potential impact of Brexit, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union. More information about our Brexit experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at