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In this Guardian article, it discusses that Theresa May has considered

severing the Brexit withdrawal agreement from the forward-looking political declaration

What is the "forward-looking political declaration" that is being referred to here and how is it different from the withdrawal agreement? What would it mean for separate votes to be held on these two things vs a single vote?

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The "forward-looking political declaration" or "political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the UK and EU" is a document developed as part of the exit negotiations between the UK and the European council under Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. It sets out the intentions of both sides in terms of negotiating position moving forward from the terms defined in the (legally binding) Withdrawal agreement. As such it is relatively short (under 30 pages), readable and bland. Further, since it's not legally binding, the EU has stated that it is still open to modifying it, for example to include an intention to retain a customs union, or to state really firmly that both sides don't want the "backstop clause" involving Northern Ireland to be activated, or to continue in perpetuity. The linked version above is the one rejected by the House of Commons on the 11th March 2019.

The Withdrawal Agreement is a massive international treaty between the UK (~300 pages in the linked version) intended to formally (and legally) describe the status of the UK-EU relationship at the moment of "exit day", whenever that is. This is the document which sets out the details of the transition period post Brexit (during which not much would change), sets out the system under which the final UK "divorce bill" of payments to the EU will be calculated and includes the contentious "Northern Irish backstop", which could, if no further agreement is reached, tie Northern Ireland into following EU rules exactly, while the rest of the UK diverged.

In terms of UK law, both these documents need to be ratified by both Houses to become law, however the conclusion of the EU council summit on the 21st of March 2019 only requires the Withdrawal agreement to be approved by the House of Commons before the end of March for exit day to be 22nd May. In principle, the current Withdrawal agreement isn't against Labour's stated Brexit plan, which deals with an alternative future relationship. Further, splitting the votes could negotiate the decision by the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, that MPs couldn't be asked to vote on fundamentally the same motion twice.

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The general soundbite repeated everywhere is that the Agreement is legally binding while the Declaration is not. Someone with more legal knowledge may want to expand on this.

As for splitting them, the rumour I've read in FT is that it's simply done to go around Bercow's refusal to allow another vote on the same thing (they were voted/rejected together last time).

And another obscure bit of maneuvering is that a vote just on the Agreement is enough to technically satisfy EU's conditional deadline. So Brexit deal is approved-but-not-really if just the Agreement passes, or so it seems:

Friday's vote will not allow Parliament to ratify the entire withdrawal package, because the law allows this only after the passage of a "meaningful vote" on both parts of the deal.

The prime minister has already lost two such votes on the full deal by large margins, and Commons Speaker John Bercow had ruled out bringing the same motion back a third time without "substantial" changes.

However, the government says a vote on the withdrawal deal alone will be enough to meet the criteria laid down by EU leaders for the postponement of Brexit from 29 March to 22 May.

Insofar I don't know of any EU reactions to this. I guess they just wait to see the actual vote.

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The Withdrawal Agreement sets up the transition period, citizen's rights, the divorce bill and the Irish backstop. It is legally binding.

The political agreement sets out the shape of the trade deal to be negotiated with the EU, to take over after the transition period.

The plan here is to leave the shape of the future trade deal until after "brexit", i.e. the UK formally leaving the EU which would likely be May 22nd. PM May has promised to resign and let someone else negotiate it, and some in her party (particularly the ERG) feel that whoever took over would likely be a strong supporter of a hard brexit and free to negotiate the kind of deal they want.

In that way May can step down having "delivered" brexit and secured her legacy as the person who did it, leaving the mess for someone else to deal with. Unfortunately, at the moment the DUP is not buying it.

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