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European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:42 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 5:42 pm, 25th March 2019

I am going to make some progress.

During its meeting last week, the European Council approved the legally binding assurances in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had negotiated with President Juncker a fortnight ago. As my right hon. Friend has explained, that should give additional assurance to Members that in the unlikely event that the backstop were ever used it would be only temporary, and that the United Kingdom and the European Union would begin work immediately to replace it with alternative arrangements by the end of December 2020. The Council also agreed—subject to a vote in this House—to approve the withdrawal agreement this week. The date of our departure from the EU would be extended to 22 May to provide time for the House to agree and ratify a Brexit deal, and to pass the necessary legislation to make that possible.

However, the Council agreed that in the event that the House did not approve the withdrawal agreement this week, article 50 should be extended only until 12 April. At that point, we would have two options: we could leave without a deal, or we would need to have agreed an alternative plan for a longer extension with the European Union, and the EU would have to have accepted that. It is very clear from what EU leaders and the EU institutions have said that that a longer extension would require elections to the European Parliament to be held in the United Kingdom.

On 14 March, I told the House that in the event that Members had not approved a meaningful vote by 20 March and agreed a timetable for the withdrawal agreement Bill, the Government would recognise that the House would require time to consider the potential ways forward. The Government stand by the commitment that I set out that day that in such a scenario, having consulted the usual channels at that time, they would facilitate a process, in the two weeks after the March European Council, to allow the House to seek a majority on the way forward. Since then my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have acted on that commitment, and have engaged constructively with Members on both sides of the House in recent days. Between us we have met leaders of all parties as well as other senior parliamentarians, and that process is ongoing; my right hon. Friend met the Leader of the Opposition earlier today. Those discussions will continue.