Where will we be Christmas 2020: days away from the cliff edge of no deal?
As is well known, the UK plans to officially leave the European Union on 29 March 2019. Despite recent difficulties in UK-EU negotiations, both sides remain optimistic of reaching a deal on the Withdrawal Agreement under which there will be a transition period until the end of December 2020. So, come Christmas 2020, the UK will be outside of the EU, and six days away from the end of the transition period.
But an important question remains as yet unanswered: what kind of future UK-EU relationship will we be looking forward to at the end of 2020?
The plan is for the UK and EU to reach a political declaration on the future relationship alongside the Withdrawal Agreement before the UK exits on 29 March 2019. But this political declaration will not be legally binding: the political agreement is just a promise to agree, a kind of diplomatic engagement ring. And like any engagement, either side could break its promises with no legal consequences.
Just because there will be a promise make a legally binding agreement on the future post-2020 relationship, there is no guarantee that the UK and EU will in fact manage to reach such an agreement. When the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019, that will only be the end of the beginning. We will only have reached base camp, and the steep climb to the summit of a legal agreement on the post-2020 UK-EU relationship will stand before us, with no assurance that the UK and EU will be able to climb to the top by December 2020.
In May 2019 there are due to be the EU parliamentary elections and, after that, new EU Commission leaders will be appointed, so the negotiators for the EU may well change. Similarly, it is not certain that Theresa May will remain Prime Minister of the UK through until Christmas 2020. As politics in the UK and EU shift and develop, it is not unimaginable that either side might have different ideas than those promised before exit on the post-2020 future relationship. Assuming that a legal agreement on the post-2020 future relationship involves provisions on trade, then each of the national (and some regional) parliaments of each of the remaining EU 27 nations will need to approve the agreement before the EU can ratify it.
So, by the time of Christmas 2020, where will we be? There might be a legal agreement on the post-2020 future relationship that the UK and EU are ready to sign, but there might not. If there is a legal agreement, it might be the same as what the UK and EU promised in the political declaration before the UK’s exit in March 2019, but it might be very different. Thus, come Christmas 2020, there may or may not be an agreement on the post-2020 UK-EU relationship, and if an agreement has been reached those who were happy with the promises made before the UK’s exit may or may not be happy with the actual agreement. It is possible, for example, that there might not be a majority of UK MPs who approve of the agreement on a post-2020 future relationship, and enough MPs to use the provisions in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act to stop the UK from ratifying the agreement.
Therefore, by the time of Christmas 2020, we could be looking at the reality of no deal on a future UK-EU relationship. As the Withdrawal Agreement is presently drafted, there would be no option to extend the transition period, so more time for UK-EU negotiations may not be an option.
We need to carefully consider now, as we approach Christmas 2018, where will we be Christmas 2020? And if we are confronted with no deal on the post-2020 UK-EU relationship, what will we do?