In the last two weeks, the Brexit debate has gained momentum. For starters, on 17 October the European Union and the United Kingdom reached an agreement on Brexit. The changes to the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration have been made in the context of significant developments in the Brexit debate: the removal of the backstop and the negotiation of a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. Consequently, Northern Ireland will remain in UK customs territory, but the UK will be responsible for enforcing EU customs procedures. Furthermore, Northern Ireland representatives can vote on continuation of the special arrangement by simple majority 4 years after the end of the transition period.
After the European Council voted unanimously to accept the new deal, the UK Members of Parliament (MPs) gathered for the first time in 37 years on a Saturday to also vote on the new Brexit deal. However, the deal was pre-empted when MPs adopted the Letwin amendment, which requires the Prime Minister to ask for an extension, allowing MPs more time to pass the full Brexit legislation and properly scrutinize the deal. A few hours later European Council President Donald Tusk confirmed he had received three letters: a letter – that was, however, not signed by Boris Johnson – asking for an extension of the Brexit deadline until 31 January 2020; a second letter written by Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s permanent representative to the EU, explaining that the first letter was required under the terms of the Benn Act; and finally a third letter from the Prime Minister, regretting the decision of the UK parliament to ask for a delay. The EU reacted that it will not decide on (the length of) a delay before the House of Commons discusses the new Brexit deal, but it is pretty sure that they will accept an extension.
House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, ruled two days later, on 21 October, that he was not going to permit MPs to hold another vote on the Withdrawal Agreement and the Parliamentary Declaration that day. Instead, the House of Commons voted on 22 October on two other proposals. It first approved the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) in the second reading, a bill that passes the Withdrawal Agreement into UK law and gives the government permission to ratify it. However, MPs then rejected the government’s proposed timetable, which would have required MPs to debate and sing off on the Bill in three days. The government’s defeat on the legislative timetable has important implications. First, it is now highly unlikely that the UK will exit the EU on 31 October, and second, MPs will now have more time to propose amendments to the Bill. Johnson decided, after the second vote, to pause the legislation “until the EU has made its intentions clear” regarding the extension that would be granted. At this stage, it is not yet clear if there will be a short delay or a long one, until the end of January.
In this turn of events, Boris Johnson indicated on 24 October that he wants to organize early elections on 12 December. In this way he wants to put extra pressure on the parliament to approve his Brexit agreement. However, the opposition only wants to accept new elections if the European Union agrees to a long delay for the Brexit. A vote on the elections will take place on Monday 28 October.
Time is running out because the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that the UK must name an EU commissioner to serve in Brussels if the EU grants a delay to the 31 October Brexit deadline.