Brexit: Understanding the withdrawal agreement and political declaration

Briefing 20-03-2019

In November 2018, the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) endorsed, at leaders’ level, an agreement that would ensure an orderly UK withdrawal from the EU on 30 March 2019, as well as a political declaration setting out the main parameters of the future EU-UK relationship. The withdrawal agreement is an extensive legal document aiming, among other things, to preserve the essential rights of UK nationals living in the EU-27 and EU citizens living in the UK; to ensure that all financial commitments vis-à-vis the EU undertaken while the UK was a Member State are respected; and to conclude in an orderly manner ongoing processes in various areas (e.g. circulation of goods already on the market and ongoing judicial procedures). Importantly, the agreement establishes a 21-month transition period, extendable once, to help businesses and citizens to adapt to the new circumstances, and the EU and UK to negotiate their future partnership agreements. During this time, the UK will be treated as a Member State, but without any EU decision-making and representation rights. Furthermore, one of the agreement’s three protocols, the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland contains a legally operational ‘backstop’, aiming to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland in the future. It has long been the most contested aspect of the withdrawal deal. The political declaration, by contrast, is a non-binding text, providing the basis for future EU-UK economic and security cooperation, taking into account both sides’ red lines and principles. With just days to go to the Brexit deadline, the procedures to approve the withdrawal deal have still not been finalised, due to continuing opposition within the UK Parliament. While extending the Article 50 negotiating period now appears highly likely, all scenarios are still possible, including the UK leaving the EU without a deal at the end of March 2019.