On 9 January 2020, the House of Commons approved the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in its Third Reading.
The House of Lords will scrutinise the bill as of 13 January. The political debate in the Upper House should not lead to any delay. On the continental side, most commentators expect the European Parliament to approve the Withdrawal Agreement on 29 January, during a plenary session in Strasbourg. Brexit appears bound to happen officially even though the conditions under which it will occur remain to be defined.
On 31 January 2020 at midnight, Brexit will become official but not yet effective.
As foreseen in the Withdrawal Agreement, the “transition” – or “implementation” – period will start on 31 January 2020 at midnight. Brexit will become official but not yet effective. As of 1 February, the UK will no longer have voting rights or MEPs, while its financial obligations will continue to apply. This period should allow for the negotiation of the new relationship between the UK and the EU. It is set to end on 31 December 2020. The transition period can be extended by 1 or 2 years, but such a request must be made by the UK and agreed upon by both parties before 1 July 2020.
Negotiating and agreeing on a comprehensive trade agreement within 11 months unfeasible. Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has previously stated that she is sceptical regarding the feasibility of finalising such a broad agreement under such a tight timeframe. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson instead has emphasised his unwillingness to request a further extension. The revised Withdrawal Agreement Bill approved by the House of Commons includes a clause that prohibits UK Ministers from agreeing to an extension of the “transition” period. As a result, the EU may have to move away from its guiding principle according to which “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” More concretely, it means that separate sector-specific deals may emerge as a solution for the activities that most need an agreement, such as customs and tariffs or transport and aviation.
In any case, to avoid a “hard” or “no deal” Brexit, the agreement on the future trade relationship must be agreed and approved by the UK and the EU before 31 December 2020. If an agreement cannot be reached, “no deal” Brexit could happen, meaning that trade between the EU and the UK would be based on WTO rules as from 1 January 2021. Hence the UK would be treated like any other third country with which the EU does not have a trade agreement in place.
Meanwhile, we can already anticipate how Brexit will change the future composition of the European Parliament. Since the UK requested to withdraw from the European Union in 2017, the European Council and the European Parliament have agreed to reduce the number of seats in the European Parliament after the departure of the UK.
As of 1 February 2020, the UK should lose its representation in the European Parliament (73 MEPs). The total number of sitting MEPs, however, will only shrink by 46 seats (from 751 to 705). Some or all of these 46 seats will remain available for future EU enlargement (e.g. the Balkans) or will remain empty. Meanwhile, 27 seats will go to 14 under-represented Member States. France and Spain will gain five seats each, while Italy and the Netherlands will secure 3 additional ones. Ireland will receive two extra seats. Nine member states will get one more seat each: Austria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Sweden.
Politically, the redistribution of the seats will increase the number of Lega MEPs (ID) to 29. From a national delegation perspective, the size of the Italian Lega will be on par with that of the German CDU/CSU (EPP). From the perspective of the European political groups, the relative size of the EPP, ID, ECR and GUE/NGL groups will slightly increase. The S&D and Renew Europe political groups will maintain their current share of Members of Parliament. In contrast, the percentage of seats taken by Members of the Greens/EFA will decrease marginally following the Withdrawal.
From an institutional perspective, the impact of Brexit on the European Parliament will prove to be negligible.