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Paving the way to the UK’s departure from the EU – an overview of the key provisions of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020

Following the Conservative Party’s victory in the UK’s general election in December 2019, the priority for both the UK and the EU27 in relation to Brexit was the approval, ratification and implementation of the deal agreed at a political level between the European Commission and the UK in October 2019 on the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU (the Withdrawal Agreement).

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From a UK perspective, this required legislation to be passed to give domestic legal effect to the agreed deal by 31 January 2020 (Exit Day). The Conservative Party majority in the House of Commons ensured that this was a relatively straight forward process and on 23 January 2020, the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 (the WAA) received Royal Assent. On 29 January 2020, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted by a total of 621 MEPs in favour of ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement with 49 against (and 13 abstentions) and the Council of the EU adopted a decision concluding the Brexit deal on 30 January.

The WAA  gives effect to the Withdrawal Agreement (including the  transitional or implementation period provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement) by amending the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (the EUWA), the key UK statute on Brexit. By way of reminder, the primary purpose of the EUWA is to ensure that the UK continues to have a functioning statute book on Exit Day. In preparation for a ‘hard’ Brexit, it originally did this by providing that, on Exit Day, EU laws will cease to flow automatically into UK law via the European Communities Act 1972 (the ECA) and would instead be “onshored” as at that date and amended (principally by statutory instrument) as necessary to correct any deficiencies in those onshored laws. In broad terms, the WAA:

  • amended the EUWA to give effect to the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement requiring EU laws (and international agreements between the EU and non-Member States) to continue to apply in the UK during the transition period, notwithstanding the fact that the UK is no longer a Member State (and  put on hold the statutory instruments amending deficiencies in onshored EU laws that would have applied on Exit Day) and
  • introduced a new section into the EUWA which ensures that all rights, powers, liabilities, obligations and restrictions arising by reason of the remainder of the Withdrawal Agreement will be recognised and available in domestic law.
We consider the key provisions of the WAA in more detail below as well as looking at:
  • the limited role Parliament will have going forward in relation to negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU27 and  
  • the likelihood of any extension to the transition period to allow more time for those negotiations. 
In summary, the effect of the WAA is that it will be business as usual from a legal perspective in the vast majority of cases for the duration of the implementation period. However, there is no clarity as to the legal regime that will apply following the end of that period. The time available for negotiating a trade deal is tight to say the least, and the amendments to the WAA discussed below decrease the likelihood that an extension of time will be agreed.