Theresa May’s Brexit deal: what is the withdrawal agreement?

PM preparing for third meaningful vote on withdrawal agreement with EU

Theresa May
(Image credit: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

On the day the UK was supposed to finally be leaving the EU, two years to the day since Theresa May submitted her letter triggering Article 50, MPs will once again debate the PM’s Brexit deal.

But thanks to an intervention by the Speaker John Bercow, this vote will be slightly different.

MPs are voting only on the withdrawal agreement – which covers the basic terms on which the UK will leave the EU – and not on the political declaration, which sets out the framework for the post-Brexit trading relationship between the two sides.

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“The debate is going ahead even though May is very likely to lose”, says The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow.

“Northern Ireland’s 10 DUP MPs have told me they will vote against it, which means 30 or 40 Tory ERG Brexiters will vote against it”, says The Spectator’s Robert Peston.

“The EU deadline to pass the agreement and trigger a further six-week Brexit extension expires at midnight tonight”, says Politico’s Jack Blanchard, prompting May to go ahead with the vote, despite the gloomy outlook.

“A win tonight would at least buy the government time with Brussels, and leave open the possibility of fudging the future relationship question until after Brexit”, he writes.

However, an unnamed cabinet minister gave the BBC’s Nicholas Watt a slightly different answer when posed the question of why the vote was taking place.

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In separating out the withdrawal agreement from the political declaration, May is “trying to force Labour’s hand”, says The Guardian’s Rajeev Syal. It is “a way of saying to the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn: ‘If you want to honour the result of the EU referendum, you should vote for the withdrawal agreement’.”

But a Labour spokesman told reporters after a discussion between the PM and Corbyn last night that the opposition leader “made clear Labour will not agree a blindfold Brexit to force through Theresa May’s damaging deal”.

But what exactly is the Withdrawal Agreement and why is it proving so unpopular with British lawmakers?

What’s in the agreement?

In essence, the agreement focuses on the three issues that the EU said must be dealt with before Britain leaves the bloc. The deal codifies the rights of UK citizens currently living in the EU27 states and of EU nationals in Britain; settles the UK’s outstanding financial liabilities to Brussels for a payment of around £39bn; and takes Britain out of the EU single market and customs union, the common agriculture and fisheries policies, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

The agreement also includes a 21-month transition period following the UK’s scheduled departure date, 29 March 2019, to prepare for the new arrangements.

The deal is accompanied by a Political Declaration that sets out a common determination to forge a close future relationship between the UK and the EU in areas such as trade and security.

What about the Irish backstop?

If a permanent trading arrangement were not agreed during the 21-month transition period, the deal suggests keeping the UK in a temporary customs union with the EU, as an option of last resort. This so-called Irish backstop is “essentially an insurance policy that no matter what happens post-Brexit, the two sides will avoid a hard Irish border”, says Vox.

In this scenario, Northern Ireland would also have a slightly closer alignment with the EU’s rules when it came to goods.

However, both the EU and the UK government have made commitments to do whatever they can to prevent the backstop scenario becoming a reality.

Why has the deal failed to pass?

The Irish backstop has riled both Tory Brexiteers and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), because this temporary customs union would only end when both sides agree to a permanent arrangement that keeps the border open - and, crucially, the UK could not decide to pull out of it unilaterally.

The staunch unionists in the DUP fear the backstop could create regulatory disparity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The Labour Party has also refused to back the deal, on the grounds that abandoning the customs union would negatively affect the UK economy. Jeremy Corbyn has said that his party would be prepared to back a new Brexit deal that kept the UK in a permanent customs union. But so far, Labour’s plan has failed to win the support of the Commons.

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Could May’s plan still be voted through?

May’s Article 50 extension motion “makes clear that she intends to bring her deal back for another vote in the next seven days”, says The Spectator’s James Forsyth.

This motion states that if a meaningful vote has been passed by 20 March, the Government would request a short technical extension to pass the necessary Brexit legislation. But if no deal has been passed, the UK would request a much longer extension.

Having lost by 149 in this week’s vote on her deal, the PM needs to win over 75 MPs in today's vote.

There have been hints that some are ready to make the switch. Cornish Tory MP Steve Double has announced that, given all the unpalatable options, May’s deal “might be the best turd that we’ve got before us”.

In fact, according to The Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn the original 75 Tory rebels have already been whittled down to a hardcore of just 21 and “Tory whips still think they can squeeze the total number of anti-deal rebels down to 16 – four Remainers and 12 Brexiteers”.

These “best-case scenario numbers would still leave the PM needing between 20 and 25 Labour rebels, however – and as things stand she only has a small handful”, says Politico’s Blanchard.

The Government has said it will accept an amendment from six current and former Labour MPs which grants the Commons the power to set the negotiating mandate for the next phase of the Brexit negotiations, as well as a veto on any final deal.

With May signalling that she is prepared to accept those terms, “you’d imagine more Labour votes might follow”, Blanchard adds.

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