Professor Steve Peers, University of Essex
The recently agreed Brexit withdrawal agreement may turn out to be dead on arrival, or at some point not long after. Nevertheless, if the agreement is ratified, it is the basis on which the UK would leave the EU – unless the two sides agree to amendments to the text.
Since the agreement is both complex and legalistic, but also the subject of intense political debate, there’s a need for a summary and explanation of the text for non-lawyers. This blog post aims to do that by outlining the structure of the agreement and the main content of each part of it in turn. It does not aim to be exhaustive, but only to give a broad indication of what the agreement entails.
Throughout the blog post, I’ve scattered the answers to ‘key questions’ which have been raised about what the withdrawal agreement does. Let’s start with this one:
Key question: Does the withdrawal agreement cover the long-term relationship between the UK and EU after Brexit?
No. The withdrawal agreement governs only the details of leaving the EU, not the long-term relationship between the UK and EU. On that issue, alongside the text of the agreement, there was also initially a draft outline of the political declaration on the future UK/EU relationship. This is the basis for negotiations that would take place after Brexit day. This declaration has since been finalised. Finally, there’s also a joint report on the state of negotiations to date.
This is (hopefully) the first in a series of several blog posts on the withdrawal agreement. I aim to come back to three specific issues in more detail: the ‘backstop’ relating to the Irish border; the role of the CJEU; and the future relationship. (Update, Dec 8: the blog post on the future relationship is here).
Also, for more detailed discussion on parts of the withdrawal agreement, I’ll refer to some blog posts on the March draft of the agreement – although, as I point out below, that draft has been amended on a number of issues.
Key question: What if the withdrawal agreement is not ratified?
Unless the two sides agree to amend it and then ratify the amended text, in principle the alternatives are the UK leaving the EU without any withdrawal agreement, or staying in the European Union. However, it remains to be seen if remaining by revoking the Article 50 notice of withdrawing is even legally possible: the Wightman case, now pending before the CJEU, will clarify this issue. A general election might be held, but that will not in itself change the options available. The Brexit date could be delayed, but both the UK government and the EU27 Member States (acting unanimously) would have to agree to this.
The EU Commission has issued preparedness notices setting out its view on what would happen if the UK leaves the EU without a withdrawal agreement. The UK government has also issued its own no deal notices. Last week, the Commission published a communication explaining what it would do in the event of no deal. In particular, it would suggest unilateral EU measures to keep basic aviation services to the UK (less than current aviation service). It would not propose issuing extra lorry permits, so access to the EU by UK commercial drivers would be highly curtailed. There would be no ‘adequacy decision’ on flows of personal data from the UK to the EU, so digital services would be somewhat more complicated.
It also proposed to waive visa requirements for short-term visits by UK citizens to the EU (for 90/180 days). This will not address residence for longer periods, which will be subject to EU and national laws on non-EU citizens, which are more restrictive than EU free movement rules. (For more details of the law applicable to UK citizens visiting or staying in the EU after Brexit, see my discussion here).
Structure of the withdrawal agreement
Part One of the withdrawal agreement (Articles 1-8) sets out the “Common Provisions”. These deal with basic issues like definitions and territorial scope.
Part Two of the withdrawal agreement (Articles 9-39) deals with citizens’ rights, for those EU27 citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU27, before the end of the transition period.
Part Three of the agreement sets out “separation provisions” (Articles 40-125), ie the exact details of phasing out the application of EU law in the UK at the end of the transition period.
Next, Part Four sets out the rules on the transition period (Articles 126-132), during which substantive EU law still applies to the UK for two to four years after Brexit day.
Part Five concerns the financial settlement (Articles 133-157).
Part Six sets out “Institutional and Final Provisions” (Articles 158-185). This includes rules on CJEU jurisdiction over EU27 citizens, dispute settlement, making further decisions to implement the agreement and rules on entry into force and dates of application.
In addition there are three Protocols to the agreement (these have the same legal force as the main treaty), on Irish border issues, UK bases in Cyprus, and Gibraltar.
Part One: Common Provisions
The main legal issue in Part one is the legal effect of EU law for the UK. The agreement must have the same legal effect for the UK as EU law does for EU Member States – including the principles of direct effect (meaning that the agreement as such can be enforced in national courts) and implicitly supremacy (meaning that national law which breaches the agreement must be disapplied by national courts). The UK must also pass an Act of Parliament to give effect to the Agreement; this is above and beyond the planned ‘meaningful vote’ on the agreement in Parliament.
All references to EU law require it to be interpreted in accordance with the normal rules of EU law. As for case law of the CJEU, references to EU law must be ‘interpreted in conformity with’ CJEU case law delivered before the end of the transition period. However, the rule is different for CJEU case law after the end of the transition period: in that case, the UK courts and authorities are only required to have ‘due regard’ for the case law. Note that none of this gives jurisdiction to the CJEU as such as regards the UK (although other parts of the Treaty give the Court some jurisdiction).
References to EU law include that law as amended until the end of the transition period, while references to Member States include the UK except when they refer to having voting or representation rights on EU bodies etc.
Part Two: Citizens’ rights
This part will mostly not apply until after the end of the transition period, since free movement of people will continue during that period. In principle, it provides that EU27 citizens in the UK before the end of that period (and UK citizens who are in the EU27 before the end of that period) will retain the same rights as those who arrived before Brexit day. To that end, it requires the two sides to keep applying EU free movement legislation to the people concerned, including legislation on social security coordination and the recognition of qualifications.
Some aspects of their legal status will change, however: the UK or EU27 Member States may require them to apply to prove their right to stay on the territory. The UK in particular plans to implement this, by means of a ‘settled status’ scheme. The risk is that some people will not have the documentation to prove their right to stay. Some categories of people currently covered by EU law (such as UK citizens returning to the UK with non-EU family members, or UK children in the sole care of one non-EU parent) will not be covered by the withdrawal agreement, so their position will be up to UK law. Similarly a number of EU27 citizens who would not qualify for status because they do not meet the ‘comprehensive sickness insurance’ requirement will be covered by a unilateral waiver of this rule by the UK, not the withdrawal agreement.
Also, the rules on family reunion in EU free movement law (which are more favourable than those under national law or EU law on non-EU families) will only apply where the family relationship existed before the end of the transition period, or the family member was legally resident in the same State then. If the citizens commit a criminal offence after the end of the transition period, national rules on expulsions will apply – and they may be more stringent than EU free movement rules on this issue.
The CJEU will have jurisdiction to rule on how the rules apply to EU27 citizens in the UK, on the basis of requests from UK courts, for eight years after the transitional period ends. There will also be an independent monitoring body in the UK with power to bring court cases on their behalf.
For further details, see my annotation of a previous version of the citizens’ rights Part of the treaty, which is only a little different from the final version.
Key question: Does the withdrawal agreement end free movement of people?
Yes, free movement ends at the end of the transition period, unless the UK and EU decide to sign a separate treaty as part of the future relationship extending free movement in the future. Currently the UK government opposes this idea. The ‘backstop’ relating to Northern Ireland, if it ends up applying, does not include free movement of people, but only the continuation of the UK/Ireland common travel area, which is more limited.
The withdrawal agreement also ends free movement for UK citizens already in the EU27, unless (again) a separate treaty as part of the future relationship addresses this issue.
Part Three: Separation provisions
This part tells out exactly how EU law ceases to apply at the end of the transition period, for a list of different issues. It was mostly agreed in March, with a few more Articles agreed in June, and the rest agreed since. The biggest difficulties were over geographical indications (ie, protection for those who call their product ‘Parma ham’) and what happens to cases pending before the CJEU on Brexit day.
Key question: Is the UK bound to EU law on geographical indications forever?
No, but it would be guaranteeing the continued protection of geographical indications for products which were protected at the end of the transition period.
More precisely, this part sets out rules for ending the application of EU law as regards thirteen issues: goods placed on the market; ongoing customs procedures; ongoing VAT and excise procedures; intellectual property protection; police and criminal law cooperation; cross-border civil litigation; personal data; public procurement; Euratom; judicial and administrative procedures; administrative cooperation; privileges and immunities; and other issues, such as the European Schools.
Key question: Does the CJEU have jurisdiction in the UK indefinitely?
No. Some have misread Article 89 of the withdrawal agreement, which refers to CJEU jurisdiction as regards cases coming from the UK, to mean that the UK will be covered by the Court’s jurisdiction forever. In fact, Article 89 simply confirms that the Court will have jurisdiction for cases sent from UK courts before the end of the transition period.
After that point, UK courts can send the CJEU cases only in limited contexts: for eight years after the transition period ends as regards EU27 citizens in the UK, or the protocols on Northern Ireland (in part) and Cyprus. Also, the Court has jurisdiction after this point to decide on how to interpret EU law if a dispute about the withdrawal agreement goes to arbitration (see Part Six).
Furthermore, the Commission can sue the UK in the CJEU for failure to implement EU law correctly for four years after the end of the transition period (though this can only concern alleged breaches which occurred before the end of the transition period as an EU Member State, or under the transition period Part of the agreement). Finally, the Commission can sue the UK to enforce State aid and competition decisions which were based on proceedings which started before the end of the transition period, but concluded afterward.
It is possible that the future relationship will provide for continued EU/UK cooperation on some of these issues, in which case some of these separation clauses either will not come into practical effect at all, or will only apply in part. For instance, the EU and UK might end up agreeing in a new security treaty on another form of fast-track extradition instead of the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), and may therefore choose to agree different rules on transition from the EAW system to that new fast-track system.
Part Four: transition period
This is a short part of the withdrawal agreement, yet it has the biggest effect: it keeps substantive EU law in place in the UK until the end of 2020. It was agreed by March, except the negotiators have now added a new Article allowing for a possible extension.
The key elements of the transition period are that EU law (including new EU law) applies to the UK, except in areas covered by UK opt-outs (such as the single currency and justice and home affairs law; in the latter case, the UK retains part of its power to opt-in to new proposals on a case-by-case basis). There are special rules on external relations: for instance, the EU will notify non-EU countries that the UK should still be regarded as covered by EU free trade agreements, or other types of EU treaties between the EU and non-EU countries (the non-EU countries aren’t obliged to agree to this). The current rules on the allocation of fisheries catches can’t be changed to benefit either the EU or UK fishing fleets.
However, the UK will not be represented on any EU institutions or bodies – including on the CJEU, which will continue to have its usual jurisdiction regarding the UK during the transition period. The UK will only be consulted on new EU measures as a special exception. In one area – foreign and defence policy – the UK can refuse to apply new EU measures if it has fundamental objections to them, and the withdrawal agreement foresees an early treaty between the EU and UK that will replace the transition period rules.
For a detailed annotation of the transition period clauses – except for the extension clause which has now been added – see my earlier blog post.
Key question: Which EU laws does the transition period cover?
I’m often asked if the transition period covers a particular EU law like driving licences or aspects of the free movement of people, because readers can’t find a specific reference to that law in the withdrawal agreement. The simple answer is that the transition period covers all laws applying to the UK except a handful of exclusions, so the drafters didn’t bother with a list of those EU laws which are covered by it.
The EU laws which are not covered by the transition period are those about the European citizens’ initiative (on that process, see the case law discussed here) and also voting and standing for office in the European Parliament and local government. The UK (or its devolved legislatures) can, if it chooses, unilaterally continue to let EU27 citizens vote in local elections, and EU27 countries can choose to do the same for UK citizens. Also, as noted above, EU foreign and defence policy might not fully apply to the UK for the whole of the transition period.
This brings us to the new clause on extension of the transition period. It’s possible for the Joint Committee set up by the withdrawal agreement – which works by the mutual consent of the EU and UK – to decide by July 2020 if the transition period will be extended, for a period of up to a date to be decided (reportedly that date could be the end of 2022).
In that case, the transition period rules continue to apply to the UK for that extended period, except there would have to be an ad hoc negotiation on how much the UK pays into the EU budget during the extended period. There are also special rules on agricultural support.
Key question: Can the UK be forced to stay in the transition period indefinitely?
No – and no. First of all, any extension of the transition period has to be agreed jointly, as noted already. Secondly, any extension won’t be indefinite, since the negotiators will add a final possible date for extension when they agree the final text of the withdrawal agreement.
On the other hand, the UK might theoretically end up in the backstop relating to Northern Ireland indefinitely. Although the withdrawal agreement says that this arrangement must be temporary, unlike the transition period there is no final date to end it and the UK cannot unilaterally end it at a certain date. However, the backstop is more limited in scope than the transition period, as it concerns only some EU laws (mainly on external trade, customs, and goods regulation, plus some limited application of EU laws on labour, the environment, state aids and competition in its Annexes). In particular, the backstop does not concern the free movement of people or services, or contribution to the EU budget.
Part Five: financial settlement
This part incorporates the earlier agreement that the UK takes part in the EU’s spending until the end of the current budget cycle (end 2020), which matches the end of the transition period (unless that period is extended). As noted above, though, if the transition period is extended, the UK and EU will negotiate a separate EU contribution to the EU budget. It also includes UK payments to the budget incurred because the EU often makes financial commitments in one year and then pays them out in later years (the system known as reste à liquider). Furthermore, it includes continued payments to ‘off-budget’ EU spending such as commitments to developing countries, until the current versions of those programmes expire. For a detailed discussion of the finances of the deal, see reports from the OBR, the National Audit Office and the Institute for Government.
Key question: Has the UK agreed to pay £39 billion in return for nothing?
No. First of all, this begs the question: the EU regards the financial settlement as money which is payable in any event regardless of any future relationship, and took the view that the future relationship could not be formally negotiated before Brexit day anyway. Even on its own terms, the argument that ‘£39 billion is paid for nothing’ is wrong, since about half of of the money relates to the UK still applying substantive EU law during the transition period (see the OBR report), during which the UK still has its current access to EU goods and services markets (and vice versa). Anyway, a free trade deal could not have been negotiated in the time available, even if that had been legally possible (again: the EU says it was not).
Part Six: Institutional and Final Provisions
First of all, as noted above (in Part Two), the CJEU will have jurisdiction to rule on how the rules on citizens’ acquired rights apply to EU27 citizens in the UK, on the basis of requests from UK courts, for eight years after the transitional period ends. There will also be an independent monitoring body in the UK with power to bring court cases on their behalf. The two sides might agree to wind up the monitoring body at the end of the same time period.
Secondly, the CJEU will have jurisdiction, after the end of the transitional period, over the references to EU law in the financial settlement part of the agreement, in references from national courts or as regards Commission infringement actions brought against the UK.
Next, there’s a Joint Committee set up to oversee and implement the agreement. It will meet at least once a year, and there are a number of sub-committees dealing with specific issues like Northern Ireland and citizens’ rights. It can take certain decisions to add to the agreement – such as an extension of the transition period – but for all these decisions the EU and UK must both agree.
There are detailed rules on dispute settlement, providing for arguments about the agreement to go to a panel of arbitrators. However, if the arbitrators have to decide an issue of EU law when settling the dispute, they will have to ask the CJEU to give a ruling. This is unavoidable, since CJEU case law insists that the EU and its Member States cannot be bound by an interpretation of EU law other than the CJEU’s (see, for instance, CJEU Opinion 1/92).
The Northern Ireland backstop rules out the arbitration process (including the CJEU) from much of the ‘level playing field’ rules on labour law, environmental law, tax, and competition and state aids law (see below). However, the CJEU has jurisdiction over part of the backstop, as well as the Protocol on bases in Cyprus.
Key question: Does the CJEU have jurisdiction over the entire agreement?
No. The Court has its usual jurisdiction under the transition period, and following that specific jurisdiction over EU27 citizens’ rights and EU law referred to in the financial settlement, as well as the protocols on Northern Ireland (in part) and bases in Cyprus. But the arbitrators can only refer disputes over EU law to it, not disputes over the entire agreement – although a lot of the agreement does refer to EU law. Also, some key points in the backstop are outside the arbitrators’ or the CJEU’s jurisdiction.
Note that this part of the agreement differs a lot from the dispute settlement clauses as the Commission proposed them in March (see discussion here) – which included powers (tilted toward the EU) for both sides to impose sanctions on each other. The final version looks a lot more like traditional international dispute settlement, and is presumably a concession by the EU to the UK.
Finally, the last provisions of the main withdrawal agreement set out ‘boilerplate’ rules: confirming that the three Protocols and nine Annexes are binding; setting out the authentic languages of the text and the depositary; and setting the date of entry in force (30 March 2019). The withdrawal agreement applies from that date, except the parts on citizens’ rights, separation provisions, dispute settlement and the three Protocols mostly apply from the end of the transition period (with specified exceptions which apply immediately). There’s also a commitment to negotiate on the future relationship, referring to the separate joint declaration on that issue, ‘with a view to’ agreeing those texts by the end of the transition period ‘to the extent possible’.
Protocol on Irish border issues
The Northern Ireland Protocol starts with three new Articles compared to the March draft, on UK territorial integrity and emphasising that the Protocol is meant to be temporary. Also there’s a link back to the possible extension of the transition period mentioned above (Part Four). A new review clause was added, but both sides would have to agree to disapply the protocol partly or wholly.
As for the substance of the Protocol, it refers to equality rights and the common travel area between the UK and Ireland, as already agreed (these issues were never controversial).
Key question: Does the common travel area continue the free movement of people between the UK and EU?
No. The absence of border checks makes it impossible to refuse entry to people at the border with Ireland, but that does not mean any EU27 citizens crossing that border (besides Irish citizens) have the right to reside or work in the UK (and vice versa for people crossing into Ireland, besides UK and EU citizens). There is UK legislation on liability for employers, landlords et al who hire or do business with people who are not authorised to work or reside that will be relevant here.
Then there’s the UK-wide customs union backstop, part of which is specific to Northern Ireland. There are a number of elements of this. This part of the Protocol links to Annexes on: a) trade in goods between EU/UK/non-EU states; b) customs cooperation; and c) a ‘level playing field’, which means some degree of continued harmonisation of law relating to tax, the environment, labour law, state aid, competition, and public companies/monopolies.
However, this falls short of the obligations of EU Member States; there are limited obligations to keep up with new EU legislation and CJEU case law; and as noted above (Part Six), the arbitration rules (including CJEU jurisdiction) mostly do not apply to this ‘level playing field’. There’s a lot of EU law that wouldn’t apply to the UK – most notably the free movement of persons, services and capital, and contributions to the EU budget. So while the backstop would still commit the UK to a chunk of EU law on trade in goods, and in a limited way to some law in the ‘level playing field’ areas, the continued application of EU law would be much less than under the rules on the transition period.
The Protocol also contains provisions on the UK internal market, as well lists of specific EU laws that apply in Northern Ireland: product regulation, VAT and excise tax, agriculture and the environment, a single electricity market, and state aids. There’s also a vague reference to other North/South cooperation. Finally, the institutional provisions of the Protocol provide that EU bodies, including the CJEU, have competence to apply or interpret the provisions of the Protocol that are specific to Northern Ireland.
Protocol on UK bases in Cyprus
This Protocol confirms that the bases in Cyprus remain within EU customs territory after Brexit, and EU regulations on goods, including agricultural and fisheries laws, still apply. EU law on excise taxes and VAT also continues to apply. Goods supplied to the staff on the bases are exempt from customs and taxes, and the UK and Cyprus may agree further rules on social security coordination. There are rules on checks at the border of the bases area, and a general obligation to cooperate to prevent fraud. Finally, the EU institutions, including the CJEU, have competence to apply and interpret EU law referred to in the Protocol.
Protocol on Gibraltar
First of all, this Protocol provides for the UK and Spain to cooperate on workers’ rights as regards the Spain/Gibraltar crossing. Next, it retains the status quo on access to aviation, unless the Joint Committee decides differently. It also contains general provisions on cooperation on tax and fraud, environmental protection and fishing, and police cooperation.
The desirability of the withdrawal agreement can only be assessed in light of the alternative options available. Whether it’s possible to end the Brexit process at all by revoking the notification under Article 50 remains to be clarified by the CJEU, as noted above. If that’s not possible, Brexit could be averted only by extending the period of negotiations under Article 50 in order to amend the Treaties to permit revocation of the withdrawal notice, but that is a stretch.
Amendment of the text of the withdrawal agreement is technically possible, but the EU has signalled that it would not be willing to consider any significant amendment to the text. Holding a general election obviously appeals to anyone who wants a change of government in any event, but does not change the fundamental issues relating to the withdrawal agreement or the Brexit process as such.
Objecting to the withdrawal agreement because of objections to the separate future relationship declaration makes little sense. The EU always took the view that it would not and could not negotiate the future relationship formally before Brexit day, and there would anyway not have been enough time to negotiate a full future relationship in two years (unless the UK decided to stay in the EEA as an off-the-shelf model, which would still have required some separate issues to be negotiated). Furthermore, since the future relationship declaration is not binding, the nature of that future relationship is still all to play for.
The options as regards the withdrawal agreement are therefore to support it, to overturn the Brexit process (if that turns out to be legally possible), or to leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement, and therefore without a trade agreement. Each of these three options may individually lack a majority in Parliament, but the no deal option – although it probably commands the least support – is the default if one of the two other options does not command a majority. A no deal outcome – damaging UK exports to their largest market, leaving the position of UK citizens in the EU27 and EU citizens in the UK less secure, disrupting the UK security relationship with the EU, significantly limiting flights and commercial lorry transport with the EU, and raising barriers to transfers of data from the EU to the UK – is manifestly not in the UK’s interest, and no responsible politician should support it. The choice is therefore between the withdrawal agreement or reversing the Brexit process (if possible) as a means to avoid this end.
For supporters of Brexit, the withdrawal agreement may be a disappointment, applying substantive EU law to the UK for the transition period and potentially a proportion of EU law to the UK via the backstop after that. From this perspective, it’s unfortunate that the possibility of staying in the EEA – giving the UK a judge on the EFTA Court and consultation rights on EU proposals, limiting the effect of EU law in the UK, and possibly reducing the scope of EU law applicable to the UK at an earlier point – wasn’t explored from the outset as at least a partial substitute for the transition period.
However, given that new Member States have a transition period of several years when they join the EU (as the UK did when it joined the previous EEC) and usually gear up alignment with EU law for several years before joining, it was unrealistic to imagine ending the UK’s application of substantive EU law would happen all in one go. The withdrawal agreement recognises the unavoidable complexity of the process, phasing out membership via different stages while still offering options for a future relationship – subject to the need to avoid checks on the Irish border.
Whichever of these two routes is ultimately chosen – managed withdrawal or reconsidered reversal – it’s important to find a way of avoiding the worst-case scenario of a no deal Brexit: the project of greedy capitalists, seedy jingoists, tweedy fantasists and needy narcissists.
Barnard & Peers: chapter 27
Photo credit: BBC