On 11 April 2019, the UK and the EU agreed a further extension of the Brexit process to the end of October 2019 at the latest – whilst leaving open the possibility of the UK exiting the EU at an earlier stage if it ratifies the draft Withdrawal Agreement. In this article, we look at what this revised timetable is likely to mean in practice.
Could the UK leave with a deal before the European Parliament elections in May?
The government has indicated that it would prefer not to hold European Parliament elections, which are due to take place on 23 May 2019. Assuming the UK wishes to avoid a no deal Brexit, the terms of the extension would only allow this to happen if the UK has ratified the draft Withdrawal Agreement by 22 May 2019. It is possible that the UK could meet this condition, either as a result of a compromise being reached in the ongoing talks with the Labour Party or as a result of further votes in the UK Parliament designed to break the current political deadlock.
Even if that happens though, Brexit cannot take place until the draft Withdrawal Agreement has been ratified by both parties. On the EU side, this will require the consent of the European Parliament (EP) – which is not due to reconvene until 2 July 2019 (the last day of its current session was 18 April). It is possible that an extraordinary sitting of the EP could be convened before 2 July – and there is some precedent for this. However, with MEPs currently back in their Member States campaigning for re-election, it seems unlikely in practice that an extraordinary sitting could be convened before the elections are due to take place across the EU on 23-26 May 2019; it would be far easier to arrange in June, when MEPs are expected to return to Brussels for meetings of their political groupings (ahead of the new session beginning in July). In view of this, if the UK is able to ratify the draft Withdrawal Agreement at some point in May, an exit date of 1 July or 1 August seems far more likely (the extension provides that Brexit will take place on the first day of the month after both parties have ratified).
What if the UK refuses to hold European Parliament elections?
If the UK fails to ratify the draft Withdrawal Agreement by 22 May and refuses to hold European Parliament elections, Brexit will take place without a deal on 1 June 2019. However, as the government appears to be proceeding with preparations for those elections, such an outcome seems unlikely at present.
What if there's still no agreement on a deal by the Autumn?
If the UK has not ratified the draft Withdrawal Agreement by October, then unless a further extension is agreed, the UK will exit the EU without a deal on 1 November 2019. The EU has reiterated that "there can be no opening of the Withdrawal Agreement", although it has also signalled its willingness to "reconsider the Political Declaration on the future relationship."
What are the next key dates in the process?
The next key dates to watch out for are as follows:
- 22 May: if the UK has not ratified the draft Withdrawal Agreement by this point, it will either have to hold elections to the European Parliament or face leaving without a deal on 1 June 2019. If, as seems more likely at present, the UK opts to proceed with European Parliament elections, it could still leave before 31 October with a deal if it ratifies the Withdrawal Agreement. However, the immediate political pressure of the 22 May "cut-off" point for avoiding holding the European Parliament elections will have been lost. This may make it more difficult to persuade MPs to back any compromise on Brexit, as the next "hard deadline" in the process will not be until the current extension expires at the end of October. A failure to ratify by 22 May could therefore mean another very fraught period of political activity in September/October, as occurred in the run-up to the original 29 March exit date.
- 20-21 June: the EU Council has indicated that it will review progress towards ratification of the draft Withdrawal Agreement at its next meeting in June. If the political situation in the UK continues to appear deadlocked, this meeting may provide some indication as to whether a further extension beyond October could be on the cards – and if so, what the conditions for that extension might be. For example, the EU might want to see the UK government committing to a more specific and credible plan to resolve the current political impasse than it appears to have at present. Alternatively, it is possible that the EU will signal that its patience is running out and that unless there is substantial progress by October, the UK will have to leave without a deal.
Travers Smith LLP
+44 (0)20 7295 3471