The date of 29 March 2019 is never far from the lips of government ministers. As the two-year period for negotiating our departure from the European Union runs down, that day is heralded by leading Brexiters as one of the few certainties left in this chaotic Brexit process. But, as is often the case, reality is far less straightforward. The government’s initial draft of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill did not mention a precise date once, referring instead to the “exit day” throughout the document. Steve Baker MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for DexEU, told the Procedure Select Committee in October that it is a “a matter of fact that exit day could be extended by mutual agreement”. The date of our departure from the EU is far from set in stone.
There are four circumstances in which that date would not apply:
- If Britain changes its mind about Brexit and withdraws the notification, made under Article 50, of its intention to leave.
- If, in early 2019, there is not yet a “divorce deal”, but there is unanimous agreement to extend the 2-year deadline so negotiations can continue. No-one wants that at present, but come early 2019 it may be seen differently.
- If there is a deal, in which case it is the deal which sets the departure date, which could still be 29 March 2019 but doesn’t have to be. It might be considered more practical to leave at the end of the fiscal year, calendar year, or even to have a transition period with Britain still a Member.
- If there is a deal, but it is challenged on legal grounds in the EU Court of Justice. The Court would no doubt say that the clock stops pending its consideration of the case, likely to take several months. And if it then found fault in the agreement, it would have to allow time for a re-negotiation.
Perhaps none of these scenarios have more than one chance in ten of happening (though many people say that the chances of the first are higher). But four such scenarios make it four chances out of ten. Enough to constitute a serious possibility. On top of that, the last three are potentially cumulative.
So don’t risk too high a bet on the date….