For the first time in 37 years, the British Parliament convened on a Saturday so that Members of Parliament (MPs) could cast their votes on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal that was scheduled to take United Kingdom out of the European Union (EU) by October 31.
But instead of coming to a decision on Brexit, Independent MP Oliver Letwin, who is a former member of Johnson’s Conservative Party, brought about an amendment that has effectively delayed a vote on Brexit, until the House of Commons passes required legislation to execute it properly. Lawmakers passed this amendment on Saturday by a vote of 322 to 306.
Essentially, this meant that Johnson was legally obliged to request the EU under the Benn Act to extend the date the votes on Brexit will be cast. The Benn Act is formally called the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2 Act) 2019 and is an act of the UK Parliament, which legally mandates seeking an extension for the negotiating period under certain circumstances.
Even so, since becoming prime minister, Johnson has maintained that further extension of a mandate on Brexit, will harm the interests of the UK and EU. In his letter from October 19 to European Council president Donald Tusk Johnson, he wrote, “We must bring this process to a conclusion so that we can move to the next phase and build our new relationship on the foundations of our long history as neighbours and friends in this continent our people’s share.”
According to a report in The Guardian, Johnson has sent three letters: the first is an unsigned photocopy of the request for extension he was obliged to send under the Benn Act, the second a letter arguing against an extension and the third an explanatory letter from the UK’s ambassador to the EU.
A referendum, Article 50 and more background
The first public vote or a referendum on Brexit happened three years ago on June 23, 2016 when David Cameron was prime minister. Through this referendum the voters chose to leave the EU and Cameron resigned the next day, succeeded by Theresa May. About 52 per cent of the voters chose to leave the EU, while 48 per cent voted to stay. Even though the referendum was not legally binding, it was carried out to know the sentiment of the public towards Brexit.
Originally, Brexit was scheduled to happen on March 29, 2019, two years after then Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50. This article mentions the legal mechanism through which a member state can exit from the EU and was agreed upon by all member states of the EU under the Lisbon Treaty signed in 2009. Triggering Article 50 means the formal decision of the government of that member state to leave. The prime minister alone can take the decision to trigger this article in accordance with the “royal prerogative” over foreign affairs. For instance, in the case of Brexit, only the UK government can trigger Article 50 after which the prime minister is required to notify the European Union about it.
What happens once a deal is agreed upon?
Once a deal has been agreed upon between the UK and EU, it needs to be approved by the House of Commons, which has not happened till now. Britain’s opposition Labour Party is determined to reject the withdrawal agreement. Recently, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, whose support is essential for Johnson to get an approval, said they don’t support the deal “as it stands”.
A withdrawal deal between the UK and EU was agreed upon in November 2018, but has been rejected by the MPs three times. According to BBC, the main sticking point for many Conservative MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party (an ally of May’s government at the time) were the Irish backstops that govern the nature of the border between Northern Ireland (a part of UK) and the Republic of Ireland. At present, no hard border exists between the two areas and goods and people can pass without any regulatory checks. The backstop therefore, refers to a legal-binding tool to make sure that post-Brexit, the Irish border remains open. In fact, one of the reasons that led to the resignation of May earlier this year were the Irish backstops.
Significantly, post-Brexit, the EU wants to enforce its standard customs procedure. Therefore, there is a conflict of interest between what the EU wants to happen with the border post-Brexit, and what the Irish want. The EU won’t back a deal that is too lenient on the borders and the DUP won’t approve a deal that enforces a hard border.
The Brexit agreement that the Parliament was supposed to decide on Saturday was a revised Brexit deal agreed upon by the UK and EU on Thursday in Brussels during a two-day EU Summit. According to the terms of this withdrawal agreement, while Northern Ireland would continue to be a part of the UK, it would also be governed by some European regulations complete with a customs check between the UK and Northern Ireland.
It is up to the EU to grant the extension. But if extended it will also delay the European Parliament’s agreement to the deal, which was scheduled for next week. The European parliament can ratify the deal only after it has been passed by the House of Commons. According to/The Guardian/, it is possible for November 30 to be the new Brexit day, provided the deal has been passed by the House of Commons by then.
Without any decision on Brexit in sight, the outcomes are multiple, it is possible that the UK takes a no-deal exit from the EU, which means if and when Brexit happens, there would be no terms determining the relationship between UK and EU affecting trade, transport and border mechanisms; secondly, it is possible that a second public vote on whether to leave the EU at all is called for and thirdly, Johnson could call for general elections to restore his party’s majority in the House of Commons. The elections otherwise aren’t due until 2022.
Previously, May too had called for early elections in 2017, but the move backfired since she found herself to be a part of a minority government, making her party depend on the DUP for support.