Threat of 2019 cliff edge cut, but 2020 is real risk

by Rachel Franklin | 02.05.2018

This week’s “meaningful vote” victory in the House of Lords helps stop a no deal Brexit in 2019, but it offers no guarantees that we will avoid such a cliff edge at the end of 2020.

The reason is that when the Brexit “withdrawal agreement” talks finish in the autumn, all we’ll know are the terms of our divorce, the details of the transition deal the government wants to delay the agony and a sketch of our future partnership. The details of that future partnership will come in a subsequent set of talks which is unlikely to finish until well after Brexit.

The meaningful vote amendment is a crucial step in ensuring that the government’s Brexit deal doesn’t go unchecked. It grants Parliament the power to determine the next step in the process, should MPs reject Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement or if she fails to reach any deal at all. Parliament could tell the government to go back to the negotiating table or it hold a people’s vote on the agreement.

Demand a vote on the Brexit deal

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But the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a trade deal continues to loom large, because the details are unlikely to be clear even by the end of the transition in December 2020 let alone by Brexit day, next March. We would have to negotiate in record time an agreement which is supposed to be the deepest and most wide-ranging in history.

The meaningful vote amendment could help avoid such a 2020 cliff if MPs tell the government to get a longer transition period. But even if the EU agreed such an extension, there is no certainty we would get a good deal at the end of the trade talks – whenever that may be.

Without knowing the future trade deal, we would be on a “gangplank into thin air”, as George Bridges, the former Brexit minister, memorably said.

The realities of Brexit are different from the binary choice posed in the 2016 referendum. All the more reason for Parliament to give the people a vote at the end of the withdrawal agreement talks – with the option to stay in the EU if they don’t want to leave on the proposed terms.

Edited by Hugo Dixon