The UK needs a bill to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, which is a legally binding treaty setting out the negotiated terms of the UK’s departure from the EU.
This is for two reasons:
To meet our international obligations.
When the UK becomes party to an international treaty, the treaty does not automatically take effect in UK law. Instead, Parliament must legislate to give effect to the treaty.
A full Act of Parliament is required by prior legislation.
Under the EU (Withdrawal) Act, Parliament must pass a further Act before the UK is allowed to ratify the treaty.
Once passed, the Withdrawal Agreement Bill will:
- Keep parts of the European Communities Act in force for the duration of the transition period. This will allow the UK to update its statute book to reflect new EU laws that come into force in the transition, and will preserve the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice
- Make citizens’ rights provisions of the withdrawal agreement directly enforceable in the UK so that EU citizens in the UK can enforce those rights in the UK courts
- Create an “independent monitoring authority” to police the UK’s compliance with the citizens’ rights part of the withdrawal agreement at the end of the transition period
- Give the Withdrawal Agreement, and any EU law incorporated into the Withdrawal Agreement, a form of “supremacy” over UK law
- Give the UK courts new instructions on their relationship with the European Court of Justice
- Give ministers powers to make payments to the EU under the “financial settlement” (the divorce bill).
It will also have to set out a domestic process for the commencement of the Irish border backstop.
If the Government wins the ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit deal, it is expected to introduce the WAB immediately. Past bills to implement major EU treaties have taken between ten and 40 sitting days to get through Parliament. More controversial treaties have tended to take longer.
The Government could push the bill through the Commons very quickly if it managed to command a majority for the necessary business motion. But it would then depend on the House of Lords agreeing.
The bill contains a few clauses which could become political flashpoints.
Provision for the 'divorce bill' or the financial settlement.
The will give ministers powers to make payments to the EU. MPs may, at the least, amend these clauses to make payments conditional on the EU reaching a trade agreement with the UK, or on future parliamentary votes.
Any provision giving effect to the Irish backstop.
These will be particularly important if the Government has bought off its opponents at meaningful vote stage with promises about parliamentary control over the backstop, as the Prime Minister has suggested. These parts of the deal could also give the Government controversial powers to change the law without consulting Parliament in the future.
Any provision on the continuing role of EU institutions or EU law in the UK.
In particular, the bill will effectively keep the European Communities Act in force, will provide for a closer relationship between the UK courts and the European Court of Justice, and will provide for the supremacy of the withdrawal agreement and some EU law over UK law.
MPs may also use the WAB as a vehicle to achieve objectives relating to the next stage of the Brexit process. For instance, there may be amendments relating to the approval of the future relationship treaty with the EU, which will be negotiated after the UK has left.
The Government may also use the bill to make good any concessions it offers to secure a majority for the meaningful vote, for example on social and environmental protections, or Parliament’s role in the future relationship negotiation.
A vote for the Government’s Brexit ‘deal’ is no guarantee of a vote for the legislation required to implement it.
If the Government cannot get the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through Parliament, then the default legal position is that the UK cannot ratify the deal and leaves the EU without a deal.
If the Government’s policy was still to leave the EU, but it wanted to get the WAB through Parliament in order to avoid leaving without a deal, it would have to agree with the EU a way of pushing the withdrawal date beyond 29 March. The UK would therefore remain an EU member until an agreed later date.