United Kingdom’S Withdrawal from the European Union

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:36 am on 29th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 11:36 am, 29th March 2019

I will readily tell the House—although I will come to this very point later in my speech: the Government could choose, if they wished to, to seek to change the political declaration with the EU. It is because of the Government’s consistent failure to do that, because of its consistent failure to reach out across the House, that they find themselves in the difficulty they have created today. But I shall return to that point a little later.

We cannot separate the withdrawal agreement from the political declaration because both parts are essential to the process. It is like selling your house without having any idea where you are going to live afterwards. We would not have the withdrawal agreement without the political declaration. Article 50(2) refers to

“setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.”

My hon. Friend the shadow Solicitor General in his brilliant speech quoted the Prime Minister’s the statement on 14 January. I will repeat one small bit of it. She said:

“One cannot be banked”— referring to the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration— without the commitments of the other.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2019;
Vol. 652, c. 826.]

Yet the motion before the House today explicitly tries to bank the commitments of one without the commitments of the other. I do not see how that can in any way be consistent with what the Prime Minister told the House of Commons on 14 January.

The second reason why I shall vote against the motion is one of the consequences of passing this motion. The aim—the Attorney-General was frank about it—is to gain an extension to 22 May rather than 12 April by satisfying the requirement of article 1 of the European Council decision of 22 March, which stated:

“In the event that the withdrawal agreement is approved by the House of Commons by 29 March 2019 at the latest, the period provided for in article 50(3) of the Treaty of European Union is extended until 22 May 2019.”

The problem, and my intervention on the Attorney General was trying to address this, is that if we passed this motion and got that extension, by the time we got to the week beginning 20 May, if at that moment we have not yet resolved the question of our future political and economic relationship and the UK decided that it needed to apply for a further extension, the EU is almost certain to refuse any such extension on the grounds that we have failed to take part in the European elections. That is because paragraph 10 of the decision of the European Council, which said:

“If the United Kingdom is still a member state on the 23-26 May 2019”— which we would be if we asked for and were granted an extension beyond 22 May

“it will be under the obligation to hold the elections to the European Parliament in accordance with Union law. It is to be noted that the United Kingdom would have to give notice of the poll by 12 April 2019 in order to hold such elections.”

Since it would be impossible on 20 May to give notice to hold elections on 23 May, it would be impossible to comply with this requirement. Therefore, what the motion before the House today means is that, if it were carried, it would in effect rule out any possibility of a further extension under article 50 beyond 22 May. So if, at that point, we have not reached agreement on the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, this motion would mean the UK leaving without a deal on 22 May. The House voted this week by 400 votes to 160 to reject for the third time leaving with no deal. The only other way forward would be to revoke article 50 to buy ourselves a little bit more time, but the Prime Minister has repeatedly told the House that she would refuse to do so.