6.A draft of the Withdrawal Agreement was published by the Commission on 28 February 2018. A subsequent version was published on 19 March 2018 following the March Council that indicated the progress that had been made on agreeing a final text with sections agreed in principle highlighted in green. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has said, “we are at 75%, but the last 25% is the hardest.” The Secretary of State told us that he expects to have the final agreed text of the Withdrawal Agreement in October.
7.Article 50 states that the Withdrawal Agreement shall be negotiated and concluded, taking account of the framework for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The European Council stated in March that, as part of the Article 50 negotiations, the EU and the UK will negotiate a “Political Declaration” on the framework for the future relationship, which will accompany the Withdrawal Agreement. Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 states that Parliament’s vote on the final deal negotiated with the EU will cover both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration.
8.The Government can negotiate and sign treaties using its prerogative powers and without any formal parliamentary involvement. Parliament’s role is customarily restricted to implementing a treaty through legislation, or using its powers under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 to delay ratification. As Suella Braverman MP, Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union, has said, “The meaningful vote is over and above the usual process that other international treaties are subject to.”
9.Article 50 does require the consent of the European Parliament before the Withdrawal Agreement can be concluded by the EU, giving the European Parliament a legally binding veto over the Withdrawal Agreement. Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 has also made it a legal requirement that a vote be held in the UK Parliament to approve the Withdrawal Agreement before it can be concluded by the UK. The parliamentary vote will be a significant opportunity for Parliament to debate and to reach a view on the outcome of the negotiations. According to the Institute for Government, the vote will be “both the point of maximum vulnerability for the Government, and the point of maximum opportunity for parliamentarians who wish to influence the course of events.”
10.In his written statement of 13 December 2017, the Secretary of State outlined the Government’s plan for approving and implementing the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on the framework of the future relationship. He included a commitment to give Parliament a vote on the final deal “as soon as possible” after the negotiations have concluded. The Government has also said the vote will take place before the European Parliament holds its own vote on whether it consents to the Withdrawal Agreement. The timing between the publication of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration and the parliamentary vote will, therefore, have implications for how they will be scrutinised.
11.The Institute for Government has set out the tasks that Government faces in Parliament in order to complete the approval process for the Withdrawal Agreement, including the parliamentary vote and passing the Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill to put the Withdrawal Agreement into domestic law. They describe the Government’s timetable as “ambitious”, but suggested that “there will be enough time, providing that nothing goes wrong.”
12.The Institute for Government recommended that parliamentarians be given two weeks to consider the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration in detail before the debate is held. When we put this to the Secretary of State, he told us that Parliament will have already had sight of the Withdrawal Agreement before it is finalised and underlined the tight timeframe:
We have a pace on us to deliver you a vote in that timetable. I am not going to try to preempt what the usual channels will determine, which is how long, how much time there will be and what the actual draft of the vote will be. I also make this other point to you. Unlike most votes in the House, in the previous several months you will have seen unveiled or put in front of the public and in front of Parliament all the elements of the negotiation. We already know large parts of what is going to be put in front of the House. We will know all of it, to the very last bits of the negotiation, way before we are in a position to put it to the House. You will then have a statement, and I imagine not too long after that, you will have the vote. That will be a matter for the usual channels at that stage.16
13.The vote in Parliament on the principle of accession to the then European Communities in 1971 provides a useful comparison. In October 1971, the House of Commons was given five days to debate a government motion approving the then Government’s decision to join the European Communities. The Institute for Government suggests that the 1971 precedent should act as the Government’s “starting point” for allocating time to the parliamentary vote on the Withdrawal Agreement. The Secretary of State noted that “five days does not sound onerous” for the debate on the motion.
14.The Government has made a statutory commitment in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act that the UK Parliament will debate and vote on the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration before the European Parliament does the same. Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit Coordinator and Chair of the Brexit Steering Group in the European Parliament, told us that the European Parliament would need three months to consider and give its consent to the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration. He also confirmed that the European Parliament would have to receive the documents before the end of this year, otherwise they could not be “assured to have a vote in plenary in March.”
15.On 21 October 1971, the House of Commons began its debate on the following Government motion on the principle of the UK’s accession to the European Communities:
That this House approves Her Majesty’s Government’s decision of principle to join the European Communities on the basis of the arrangements which have been negotiated.
16.Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 provides that the motion to be put to the House in the autumn will cover both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on the terms of our future relationship. The Secretary of State told the House in November that “if the original motion is put but not passed, the deal falls—full stop; in toto.”
17.The Institute for Government has suggested that it is in the Government’s interests to talk up the disruption associated with voting down the deal. They also state that
The Government’s claim that the vote is a binary choice between ‘deal or no deal’ is wrong. Parliament won’t be able to amend the content of the withdrawal agreement or future framework. But if MPs and peers are unhappy with what the Government has negotiated, they will almost certainly be able to amend the motion so as to put conditions on approval. Even if Parliament voted the Government’s deal down without amendment, this could lead to a renegotiation if the Government faced insurmountable political pressure to heed Parliament’s concerns, and the 27 Member States of the EU were willing to discuss the issues raised by parliamentarians.
We were also told by Lord Lisvane, former Clerk of the House of Commons, that if the motion were rejected, the Government could subsequently put down a different motion, taking account of the reasons why the first one had been rejected.
18.The Secretary of State conceded that the motion considered would be amendable. It will be up to the Speaker to decide whether any amendments tabled are within the scope of the motion and which should be selected for debate. Parliament cannot directly amend the content of either the Withdrawal Agreement or the Political Declaration, but can instruct the Government to seek a different outcome with the EU. This could include instructing the Government to negotiate a new Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration based on different terms.
19.To be eligible for selection by the Speaker, amendments need to be within the scope of the motion. The Institute for Government suggested that amendments would be likely to be considered to be within scope on substantive points in the Withdrawal Agreement or the Political Declaration (requiring the re-opening of negotiations with the EU27) or setting procedural requirements which would be within the gift of the UK Government to concede.
That would include amendments directing the Government to renegotiate the length of transition, the financial settlement or “divorce bill”, provisions on citizens’ rights, and the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU. Amendments to the procedure for approving the UK’s departure from the EU—for instance, by requiring a further referendum or a different kind of parliamentary vote—would also be likely to be in scope.
20.Although amendments can be grouped for debate, only one question can formally be put before the House at one time. Lord Lisvane explained to us why consideration would need to be given to the arrangement of debate. The order in which amendments are considered is important as, where amendments are mutually incompatible the agreement of one could preclude a decision being taken on a subsequent one. Furthermore, specific provision would also be required for the House to be sure to able to vote on more than one amendment. Without a business motion, if debate was continuing at the moment of interruption in the House on the last day scheduled for debate, a division could be held on only the single amendment formally before the House followed by the main approval motion (as amended or in its original form).
if it is a straightforward motion with amendments down, when you hit the moment of interruption […] you put the question on the amendment before the House. Then you put the contingent main question. If you want to have a choice of amendments to put, one after the other—there are questions of calls and falls, because there might be incompatible amendments—so if you want to call more than one, you will need a business order to allow more than one amendment to be called after 10 o’clock, 7 o’clock or whatever it turns out to be.
21.If a formal vote of the House was likely to be only possible on one amendment, the Speaker’s selection of the amendment would become even more significant. The Institute for Government report notes that
The choice between an amendment which required a new referendum on the Government’s deal and one that required the UK to leave the EU without a transition, for instance, would be highly political.
22.The Secretary of State told us he would be tabling the same amendable motion in the House of Commons and the House of Lords and seeking approval from both. This raised the possibility that the two Houses might not pass the motion in the same form. Steve Baker MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Exiting the European Union, explained to the Lords’ Constitution Committee how the Government would respond to such a situation:
If we were to reach such a position, there would be a considerable flurry of conversation through the usual channels and between both Houses and we would find ourselves in rather an interesting and uncharted position.
I would observe that in the [Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010] CRAG procedures if a resolution rejects the ratification of the treaty and if Ministers lay a Statement to explain why it should proceed, if the House of Lords objects again the Government can proceed and ratify. If the House of Commons objects, we would end up indefinitely postponing the ratification of the treaty under CRAG. That indicates a constitutional convention whereby the elected House is more powerful in its ability to affect what the Government do.
[…] Ultimately, the House of Commons has to win. Your Lordships’ House generally seeks to respect the convention that the House of Commons has primacy.
23.In our Second Report, we concluded that it was “difficult to imagine any possible deal, consistent with WTO and other international treaties, that would be more damaging to the UK’s interests than leaving the EU with no deal whatsoever in place.” The UK’s economy, infrastructure, legislative base and regulatory framework are not prepared overall to absorb the disruption that would be caused by a “no deal” Brexit.
24.If the Commons rejects the Withdrawal Agreement, Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, requires the Government to make a statement within 21 days on how it intends to proceed in the negotiations with the EU. Within seven sitting days of that statement, a motion in neutral terms must be tabled.
25.Section 13 also makes provision where no deal is agreed between the EU and the UK. If the Prime Minister announces before 21 January 2019 that no deal can be agreed with the European Union, a statement must be made within 14 days, and a motion in neutral terms must then be tabled in both Houses within seven days of that statement. Additionally, if no agreement has been reached by the end of 21 January 2019, a statement must be made within five days, and a motion must be tabled in both Houses within five sitting days. As the Secretary of State told the House during the passage of the Act, this section provides that “there is a guaranteed opportunity for both Houses to express their views on the Government’s proposed next steps.”
26.Section 13 provides for debate in each of these scenarios to be on motions “in neutral terms, to the effect that the House of Commons has considered the matter of the statement”. As the House of Commons Library has noted:
The Standing Orders of the House of Commons state that if the Speaker considers that a motion is expressed in ‘neutral terms’ then ‘no amendments to it may be tabled’. It appears to be the Government’s intention that the motion in each of these three scenarios could not be amended. However, […] the House is free to agree to disapply Standing Orders. A statutory provision cannot be used to force a specific Standing Order to be used to move a particular motion.
27.In a written statement on this point, the Secretary of State clarified that “Under the Standing Orders of the House of Commons it will be for the Speaker to determine whether a motion when it is introduced by the Government under the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is or is not in fact cast in neutral terms and hence whether the motion is or is not amendable.” He added that Members can table motions on and debate matters of concern and that, “as is the convention, parliamentary time will be provided for this.” This point was further clarified by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve MP, who stated that the House would be able to express its view in the event of a “no deal.”:
If this House chooses to debate matters, including matters on which it may wish to have multiple motions, the reality is that if we wish to exert our power to do that, we can. In the circumstances that might follow a “no deal”, which would undoubtedly be one of the biggest political crises in modern British history, if the House wishes to speak with one voice, or indeed with multiple voices, the House has the power to do.
28.Section 13 provides for a “motion in neutral terms” only in the three “no deal” scenarios specified in subsections 3, 7 and 10. Subsection 1 of that section, which requires that the House approve both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Future Framework before the former can be ratified, does not attempt to provide for an unamendable motion.
29.Dr Brigid Fowler of the Hansard Society explained that the focus on a meaningful vote on “no deal” stems from the unusual nature of the EU negotiations. She notes that “in most international agreements, if one party’s legislature votes it down the status quo prevails”. Unlike other negotiations, there is no business as usual option in the EU negotiations. As Dr Fowler says, “not achieving a ratified agreement is more akin to triggering a sunset clause on the legal underpinnings for all the UK’s interactions with the EU.”
30.Our predecessor Committee recommended in its Third Report in the last Parliament that Parliament must have a vote in the event that there is “no deal”. Mrs Braverman rejected the need for such a vote, telling us that Parliament had already given its consent to the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without an agreement when it passed the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017, which conferred power on the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50:
It is law in the UK that Article 50 is triggered and that has a time limit. As stated in Article 50, we will leave at the end of March 2019. We want to leave with a withdrawal agreement and the future framework, but if that is not approved by Parliament, Article 50 still stands, and that legal basis continues.
31.The Secretary of State has suggested that if the deal were to fall this would not necessarily lead to the “complete absence of any outcome”, pointing to the possibility of a “bare bones deal” or a “whole series of bilateral deals”.
32.Under Article 50, the European Parliament’s consent is necessary for the Agreement to be concluded by the Council. The European Parliament cannot amend the Withdrawal Agreement but it can make it clear to negotiators what is needed to get the consent which Article 50 requires. Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for European Reform, illustrated this point to us:
At the end of the process, it has to ratify international agreements. […] That means that the European Parliament cannot amend an international agreement that has been agreed between the parties and wrapped up. It can simply either approve it or reject it. But the European Parliament over the course of recent years has expanded its powers and used its veto rights to extract some concessions in the process of the negotiations. It has used various resolutions to say, “This is what we do not like; that should be in the draft text”, but it happened in advance rather than when the European Parliament received the text. It also happened that the European Parliament decided to reject the text on conditions or to say, “We will approve it only if a party decides to do A, B or C”.
33.The European Parliament’s powers of consent under Article 50 reflect the institution’s powers in the vast majority of international agreements concluded by the EU. These powers are provided for in Article 218 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and a subsequent Framework Agreement. The European Parliament must be “immediately and fully informed at all stages of the procedure”, and have information rights including access to negotiating directives as well as observation rights for MEPs. Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska has suggested that Member States are uneasy about the influence over international negotiations of an “increasingly assertive European Parliament”. The European Parliament has exercised these powers on a number of occasions: declining consent to agreements which has resulted in renegotiations to satisfy MEP’s interests and even to agreements being abandoned.
34.The European Parliament has passed a number of resolutions on the Article 50 negotiating directives produced by the Council and responded to the Joint Report agreed in December 2017, focussing particularly on the citizens’ rights aspects of Brexit. Given the Parliament’s strong views on the protections for EU citizens’ rights in the Withdrawal Agreement, it is unlikely MEPs will withhold consent on that agreement for fear of precipitating a “no deal” exit, leaving citizens’ rights in an uncertain state. As DExEU Minister Steve Baker told the Lords’ Constitution Committee:
I would not expect us to be in a position where the European Parliament has sought to amend the international agreement, which is the Withdrawal Agreement.
I do not doubt that a considerable range of views will be expressed, but again I would say that the European Union Parliament has been very strong on citizens’ rights in particular. We are proud of the agreement and I very much hope and expect that the European Parliament will agree with us that that agreement should be concluded.
35.The Government has been clear that the UK Parliament will vote on the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration before the European Parliament. If the European Parliament’s vote were to lead to a renegotiation which substantially changed the proposition which had been put to the UK Parliament in the meaningful vote then, as Lord Lisvane told us, “there might need to be a second authorising resolution.”
36.We noted in our Third Report that if substantial aspects of the future relationship were not agreed in October, the Government “should seek a limited extension to the Article 50 time” to allow for sufficient detail to be included in the Political Declaration ahead of the parliamentary vote. This would be important to ensure that the Government could meet its objective that no negotiations on substantive aspects of the future relationship take place during the transition / implementation period.
37.The Secretary of State told us that an extension of Article 50 “may well prove to be impossible” in terms of achieving unanimity of the EU27 for the process. Sir Jonathan Faull, former Director General, European Commission, argued that political events in Brussels could complicate such a process, in particular the European Parliament elections only two months after the Article 50 deadline. If the UK were to continue as a Member State beyond the May 2019 elections, it is unclear whether UK MEPs would stand in the elections and participate in parliamentary committees for the period until the revised exit day. These complications led Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska to suggest that it would be extremely unlikely that the EU27 would allow for a substantial extension if there were already a Withdrawal Agreement on the table. Furthermore, the Government has also recently made it clear that local authorities and Returning Officers should not incur expenditure in preparation for any UK involvement in these elections.
38.Witnesses noted that there were different views on whether Article 50 was revocable, a question being considered by the Court of Session in Scotland. Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska told us that the European Parliament has said that a revocation of Article 50 might be subject to some conditions. Any revocation of Article 50 would need to occur before 29 March 2019 as at that point, under the terms of Article 50, the UK would have become a third country and would have to reapply for EU membership under Article 49.
39.The conclusion of a Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU27 and its accompanying Political Declaration on the framework for a future relationship will initiate a series of proceedings in Parliament which will need to be concluded by 29 March 2019, the date on which, under the terms of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, the UK becomes a third country. Even under the most optimistic scenario of full agreement at the October Council, Parliament will have barely more than five months to consider a motion to approve both documents (the “meaningful vote”), to complete consideration of the Withdrawal and Implementation Bill, and of any delegated legislation and any other primary legislation required by exit day, and to complete procedures required under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 for treaty ratification.
40.This Committee’s scrutiny of the deal will be important to the “meaningful vote”. The Secretary of State has committed to give evidence to us following the October Council and we would expect a similar commitment if final agreement is deferred to the December Council or an even later date. We will expect the Secretary of State to be prepared to give evidence to us as soon as practicable after the Council at which any agreement is reached. We recommend the Government allow sufficient time between the Secretary of State appearing before us to give evidence and the scheduling of the “meaningful vote” to ensure that we have the opportunity to report to the House, as appropriate, on the final deal. We note that the Institute for Government suggested that parliamentarians should be given two weeks at the very least to consider the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration before the debate is held. However, we recognise this timetable would need to be condensed in certain circumstances.
41.The debate on the motion for approval of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration will be one of the most significant parliamentary debates in a generation. We note the precedent of five days spent debating the motion to approve the UK’s decision to join the then European Communities in 1971. Five days would therefore be the minimum time that would be appropriate on this occasion.
42.The Secretary of State indicated to us that the motion to approve the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration will be amendable. Given the significance of the debate on the motion it would be unconscionable if the House of Commons was not provided with the opportunity both for the fullest debate and to enable a clear expression of its opinion. It is essential that debate is organised through a Business of the House motion to ensure that it is possible for the Speaker to select a series of different amendments for consideration. The Government must ensure, so far as it is within its powers to do so, that these procedures allow the decision on the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration motion to reflect, as far as possible, the view of the House as a whole even if this differs from the Government’s preferred wording. The means of doing this is a matter on which the House would benefit from the expertise of the Procedure Committee and we request that that Committee give it consideration.
43.We do not accept that a refusal by the House of Commons to approve the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration would mean that the Withdrawal Agreement would fall and that the UK would therefore leave the EU on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Consideration of the approval motion will give the House the opportunity to ask the Government to renegotiate terms, if the EU agreed to do so, or to seek to put its own conditions on approval. The House will expect that, in such circumstances the Government would re-submit the motion following any renegotiation sought by Parliament or having considered the terms set by the House. We call on the Government to provide for a second parliamentary vote to approve the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration in such circumstances.
44.It is possible that a renegotiation may be required in the event of either the UK Parliament or the European Parliament rejecting the Withdrawal Agreement or Political Declaration. However, the terms of Article 50 mean that, without an extension of Article 50 negotiations by the UK and the EU27, the UK is due to exit the EU on 29 March 2019 with or without an agreement.
45.We reiterate the recommendation from our Third Report that the Government should be prepared to seek a limited extension to the Article 50 period if substantive aspects of the future relationship remain to be agreed. This would allow Government to meet its objective that negotiations on substantive aspects of the future relationship should not continue into the transition / implementation period. A limited extension to Article 50 may also be required to prevent the UK leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 without an agreement in the event that parliamentary consent to the Withdrawal Agreement is delayed by either side of the negotiations, although it is by no means certain that the EU would respond positively to such a request.
46.The negotiations on the UK’s exit from the EU are unlike any other in that a “no deal” scenario does not maintain the status quo but has significant implications for the UK and the EU from the moment that the EU Treaties would cease to apply to the UK at 11pm on 29 March 2019. In the circumstances that a deal is not reached (or a deal is not reached that Parliament is prepared to approve), it is important that Parliament is able to express its view clearly and advise the Government on how to proceed. The provisions in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 provide a framework for Parliament’s role in that scenario. Were this situation to arise, we would expect the Government to provide an opportunity for both Houses to express their views, as the Secretary of State told the House they would. In such circumstances, the country would expect more than that its elected representatives simply “took note” of the situation.
4 Commission, , 19 March 2018
5 Oral evidence taken before the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union, Scrutiny of the Brexit negotiations, 1 May 2018,
7 Council of European Union, , 7 March 2018
8 Oral evidence taken before the House of Lords Constitution Committee, Parliament’s role in relation to the terms of Brexit, 18 April 2018,
9 Institute for Government, , April 2018, p5 and p20
10 DExEU, , HCWS342 13 December 2017.
11 HC Deb, 7 February 2017,
12 Failure to approve and implement the Withdrawal Agreement in domestic law (in part at least) by statute would prevent the UK ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement.
13 Institute for Government, , April 2018, p3
14 Institute for Government, , April 2018, p3
17 HC Deb , 13 November 2017, vol 631, col 41
18 Institute for Government, , April 2018, p3
21 Institute for Government, , April 2018, p10
22 10p.m. on Monday; 7p.m. on a Tuesday or Wednesday; and 5p.m. on a Thursday.
24 . However, Section 13 subsection (1) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 states that the motion in the House of Lords would “take note of the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for a future relationship.”
25 Oral evidence taken before the House of Lords Constitution Committee, on , 18 April 2018, Q1. See also (Lord Lisvane)
26 Committee on Exiting the European Union, Second Report of Session 2017–19, , HC 372, 1 December 2017, para 123
27 HC Deb, 20 June 2018,
28 Commons Library Insight, 19 June 2018
29 Department for Exiting the European Union, HCWS781, , 21 June 2018
30 HC Deb, 20 June 2018,
31 Hansard Society, , 12 June 2018
32 Committee on Exiting the European Union, Third Report of Session 2016–17, , HC 1125, 4 April 2017, para 33
36 Centre for European Reform, , February 2017, pp 4–5
37 For example, In February 2010, the European Parliament blocked the US-EU agreement on the processing and transfer of financial data for the purposes of terrorist finance tracking (also known as the SWIFT agreement, because it gave the US authorities access to information from the SWIFT interbank communication system, based in Belgium). And during the EU-Korea negotiations the European Parliament called for better safeguarding for the EU car industry extending the negotiations by 2 years.
38 The European Parliament refused to consent to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement 2012 due to issues of privacy which prevented the agreement from being concluded.
39 European Parliament resolution of 3 October 2017 on (2017/2847(RSP))
40 European Parliament resolution of 13 December 2017 on (2017/2964(RSP))
41 Oral evidence taken before the House of Lords Constitution Committee, , 18 April 2018, Q2
42 [David Davis]
44 Committee on Exiting the European Union, Third Report of Session 2017–19, , HC884, 18 March 2018, para 86
47 The European Council decision on , on 13 April 2018 would allow the UK to take part in the May 2019 European Parliament elections if the UK were still a Member State.
49 Cabinet Office, Written Answer 143730, , 18 May 2018
50 Scottish Legal News, , 8 June 2018
Published: 28 June 2018