By Anthony Egan, courtesy of Open Europe
Earlier this week, Parliament voted in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in principle but rejected the Government’s timetable for scrutinising the Bill and final vote. While the Bill has cleared the first hurdle to ratification, which would secure the UK’s negotiated departure from the EU, the path ahead remains unclear for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the Government yesterday said it would only grant Parliament more time to scrutinise the Bill if it agreed to an early General Election on 12 December, announcing it would put a motion before Parliament on Monday under the Fixed-term Parliament Act (FTPA). However, the route to an election is plagued with problems for both the Government and the Opposition. The Government’s motion would require two-thirds of MPs to support it, but opposition parties have raised fears that the Government’s ability to set the election date could lead to an accidental No Deal. Unless they are convinced otherwise, they are unlikely to support the motion.
The alternative route to an early election would be to instead table legislation allowing the terms of the FTPA to be set aside to allow for an election on a specific date. The issue with this option is that such legislation, unlike the Government’s proposed motion, would be amendable. The opposition parties could use this to cause problems for the Government, for example, by extending the franchise to 16-year olds and EU citizens. So the path to a General Election, which the Government has tied (at least for now) to the Bill’s passage through Parliament, remains unclear.
Secondly, the UK is still awaiting the EU’s response to its Article 50 extension request. Reports earlier this week suggested differences of opinion between EU leaders on the length of said extension, and the EU announced this morning that it had not yet reached a decision. While French President Emmanuel Macron is reportedly isolated in his desire for a shorter extension to focus minds in Westminster, the next moves from both the Government and the opposition parties will hinge on the terms of an extension. Yet the EU seems reluctant to decide on an extension until it sees greater clarity from Westminster. It seems that the EU and Parliament have locked themselves in a chicken-and-egg situation, waiting for the other to move before making any decisions.
Thirdly, it is worth stressing that the coalition of MPs who supported the Withdrawal Agreement Bill at 2nd reading on Tuesday is far from stable. As Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh told LBC earlier this week, a number of these MPs made their support conditional on significant amendments to the Bill. The Government may yet have to grant some concessions in domestic law, such as on workers’ rights and extension of the transition period, to get MPs onside.
Finally, if the Government was to set out a timetable for the Bill to be scrutinised that Parliament could support, there is still the risk that certain ‘wrecking’ amendments could topple it. Any amendments that meant the Government was not meeting its obligations under international law would mean the Withdrawal Agreement would not have been ratified.
The Government, the opposition parties and the EU will have lots to consider as they plan their next steps.
Anthony Egan is a Research Analyst with Open Europe.