Brexit timeline: key dates for the UK’s departure from the EU

Will Brexit finally be resolved by the end of October? All possibilities are on the table and nothing should be ruled out. We have a look at what could happen in the coming weeks.

EU Council meeting (Thursday 17 and Friday 18 October)

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the UK and the EU have struck a 'great new deal' just before the start of the summit. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker described the new deal as a 'fair and balanced agreement'.

So, what is in the deal? It bares some similarities to the previous deal signed by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, but contains some major changes to address the controversial Irish backstop and the fears of reintroducing a land border on the island of Ireland. Some of the key points of the deal include:

  • The whole of the UK will leave the EU customs union, allowing the country to strike new free trade deals with countries outside of the EU. This will also allow Northern Ireland to benefit from any trade deals the UK signs.
  • There will be a legal customs border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but the customs border will operate between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Goods from Great Britain will be checked when they enter Northern Ireland but not duties will be paid unless those goods intend to be sent into the EU.
  • Northern Ireland will effectively be part of an 'all-island regulatory zone', adhering to both UK and EU rules.
  • The Northern Irish Assembly will vote on the arrangement every four years. This requires a majority of the Assembly (rather than the majority of the nationalists and the unionists) and the first vote would be in early 2025, four years after the transition period expires at the end of 2020.
  • UK citizen rights in the EU will be protected as will EU citizens in the UK.
  • The UK will pay a divorce bill to the EU, which currently stands at around £33 billion.
  • The UK and the EU have changed the political declaration on their future relationship. The pair will look to strike a Free Trade Agreement rather than commit to the UK remaining aligned with the EU in terms of regulation and standards. This suggests the future trade relationship will not be as close as previously thought under May’s deal
  • The deal will have to win the approval of all EU member states as well as the support of UK MPs. Whether a last-ditch deal is struck or not, the summit will set the stage for the coming weeks.

Historic sitting of House of Commons as Benn Act kicks in (Saturday 19 October)

Members of parliament (MPs) will sit in the House of Commons on a Saturday for the first time since 1982 to deal with whatever comes out of the EU Council meeting. MPs will debate and vote on the viability on the deal. They will have to move fast if they are to get any deal through parliament in time.

The problem is that the Conservative government does not have a majority and that it relies on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has it won’t back any deal that treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. This means the Conservatives will need the support of opposition MPs if it is to pass the House. The DUP is also unhappy that the confirmatory vote on the arrangement needs a majority in the Assembly rather than a majority from both unionists and nationalists. Pro-EU members of the Assembly (which is currently suspended) outnumber the DUP and other pro-Brexit members, sparking fears this could leave Northern Ireland permanently stuck in this new arrangement.

There will be opposition MPs that will want to table amendments or challenge the deal, but they will be aware that time is not on their side. Juncker has said the EU will not grant an extension to the UK if it rejects the deal – meaning the EU and Johnson have effectively pushed UK MPs into a corner and said it is this deal or no deal.

Whether the EU would follow through with its threat not to grant an extension if MPs reject the deal is another story. President of the European Council Donald Tusk has refused to rule out another extension if this deal fails and ultimately it will be down to the council members, not Juncker himself.

The primary weapon for the majority of MPs unwilling to leave without a deal will be the Benn Act passed by the House of Commons in September. The legislation dictates that Johnson must ask the EU for an extension until 31 January 2020, if he has not struck a deal that MPs can support by Saturday. But the EU has to agree to it, and that looks uncertain at the moment.

It will be an explosive day that could give the green light to a new Brexit deal or kill off the proposals.

House of Commons to vote on Queen’s Speech (week of 21 October)

The Queen’s speech was delivered on 14 October. Traditionally, this signals the start of a new parliamentary session after a general election and the Queen reads out a speech, which is prepared by the government and outlines what policies it intends to introduce. The government usually has a majority, so the policies included in the speech have a high chance of being passed. However, this time is different. A general election is coming sooner rather than later, which could make this new parliamentary session one of the shortest in history. The government does not have a majority, so the pledges made in the speech – ranging on everything from immigration to agriculture – are nothing more than an early look into the Conservative’s manifesto.

The House of Commons must vote on the Queen’s Speech and this is likely to happen either on Monday 21 or Tuesday 22 of October as there are usually five days of debate before the vote. Without a majority, it is likely that the government will lose the vote for the first time in 95 years, and MPs would effectively reject the idea of the government introducing any new laws. However, this would underline the government’s claims that a general election is needed – an idea that opposition MPs have so far refused to support.

Will there be a general election or a vote of no confidence?

The House could be voting on a possible general election as early as the week starting on 21 October.

There are two main routes to an election. The first is that the government asks the House to call an early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It has tried and failed with this method before. To call an election, the government requires the support of two-thirds of MPs – which is hard as there is no majority. The second route could see Johnson table a short new law that specifies the date the election will be held, and this would only require the support of a majority of MPs rather than two-thirds.

With Brexit on the cards for 31 October – deal or no-deal – a general election looks almost certain to happen after Brexit has happened. If a general election is called, then there must be at least 25 working days until the actual vote can be held. Reports suggest parliament could be dissolved anytime in early November, with Thursday, 5 December touted as a possible election date.

If Johnson’s deal is rejected on Saturday then this is likely to hasten calls for a general election. Labour and others will hope that if the deal is rejected and a genral election is called that the EU would provide another extension. This may allow Labour to campaign for a second referendum, which, as one of the only paths to possibly remaining in the EU, it will be hoping can persuade the bloc to give the UK more time.

Plus, if Labour and other opposition MPs vote down the Queen’s speech, then this would also place pressure on the opposition to put forward a vote of no confidence in the government. Labour has been saving this card because it knows it only gets one shot.

If the government lost a vote of no confidence, then the House would have 14 days to rally around a new leader that can command a majority among MPs. If the new leader and their party can secure a majority among MPs in that time, then they can take power without the need to win an election. If the House remains divided on who should succeed in the government, then a general election will be called and the public will decide. Right now, no single party can command a majority in the House and the opposition parties remain split: Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has insisted only he can lead any government borne out of a vote of no confidence, but others, such as the Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson, have said they will not provide the vital support Corbyn would need to govern because he is 'unfit' to serve as prime minister. This means any successful vote of no confidence is likely to lead to a general election. The SNP, knowing Labour may need its support to get into power, has said it will demand any partner would have to give the Scottish people another independence referendum in 2020 – which will be a hard request to swallow for any party.

There is also the chance that the prime minister will call a vote of no confidence against his own government as a way of forcing the opposition to either back its plans or accept that the country needs an election.

What if an election makes Jeremy Corbyn prime minister?

Last-ditch EU Council meeting? (week of 28 October)

There is a high probability that the EU Council will hold an additional meeting in the days before the current Brexit deadline. Likely dates are 28 and 29 October and have been pencilled in as such. With a deal on the table, this will aim to ratify the agreement. But it could be about what will happen if MPs or EU member states turn it down and what a no deal could mean for the bloc. If the UK or the EU were to consider a further extension for any reason, then this would have to be agreed at this meeting too.

It was previously thought that the EU Council was to meet in November if the UK left without a deal on 31 October to discuss the future of the bloc following a hard Brexit. The next scheduled meeting isn’t until Thursday 12 December.

Brexit? (Thursday 31 October)

Brexit now looks more likely than ever to happen on 31 October – the question is, will the UK leave with or without a deal – although an extension has not been ruled out.

If there is a deal and it is ratified by both sides in time, then the UK could leave but avoid a clean break by, for example, entering a transition period. If MPs or EU member states vote the deal down, then the UK will leave without a deal unless the UK and the EU can agree on an extension.

If the UK leaves without a deal on 31 October, then trade between the UK and EU would automatically fall back on World Trade Organisation rules, and the UK would no longer be a part of the EU single market or customs union. The government has said it can leave without a deal and start negotiating a future trade agreement right away: but it won’t set the best terms to start talks. The Irish border problem would be up in the air and trade would be severely disrupted. Plus, the government has said it won’t pay the so-called divorce bill to the EU under such circumstances, which hardly sends a signal that the UK is a trustworthy partner.

New European leaders take charge (Friday 1 November)

New leaders of key European institutions will take up their roles at the start of November after being elected by members of the European parliament earlier this year. The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, will make way for the current prime minister of Belgium, Charles Michel. President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, will be replaced by Germany’s defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen. Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell Fontelles, will become the EU’s new chief of foreign policy, and the president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, will be succeeded by Christine Lagarde from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Such sweeping changes at the top of the EU are significant amid Brexit. If the UK leaves without a deal at the end of October, then these new leaders will have to decide how receptive they are to discussions about future trade with the UK and will take charge of negotiations.

If the UK is still in the EU when these new leaders emerge, then it could be a different story. Some argue the new leaders may be willing to reopen discussions about a new deal, which, again, would require the UK to secure an extension. Others think the EU’s stance won’t change even if the leaders have.

How would Lagarde as ECB president impact financial markets?

Post-Brexit, pre-election budget? (Wednesday 6 November)

The government has announced the chancellor, Sajid Javid, will hold a pre-election budget on Wednesday 6 November. It is assuming the UK will have left the EU by this point, so in the Conservative’s minds this is a post-Brexit, pre-election budget. Because it doesn’t have a majority, and the budget is being announced before, rather than after, an election, the government has been accused of using it as a way of making generous fiscal promises that can’t be fulfilled, and a chance to boast about its manifesto pledges.

Anything promised should be taken with a pinch of salt, especially since the Office for Budget of Responsibility (OBR) charged with budget analysis and growth forecasts will have had less time than usual to prepare.

Bank of England interest rate decision (November)

The next time the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) is due to make an interest rate announcement is on Thursday 7 November. If the UK has left without a deal, then prepare for the central bank to intervene. Most of its planning to date has been made on the assumption that the UK will strike a deal, or, in other words, that there won’t be a no-deal Brexit.

When is the next BoE meeting and what to expect?

The BoE decided to hold interest rates at 0.75% (as part of its target to have inflation of 2%) at its latest meeting in early August. In September, the bank said the UK would avoid a recession this year, but downgraded its growth forecasts, stating that the uncertainty spawning from Brexit continues to weigh on the economy. Previously, the BoE has been expected to cut interest rates in the event of a no-deal to help prop up the economy, including weaker growth, higher inflation and further depreciation of sterling. However, the bank said in September that rates could go either way in the event of a no-deal. It is all guesswork until the BoE knows what it is actually dealing with.

Published: 22 August 2019
Updated: 17 October 2019


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