The 585-page long Withdrawal Agreement sets out the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union, specifically focusing on how the UK leaves the EU. This covers a number of significant areas, including issues such as citizens’ rights; the transition period; financial provisions; and provisions relating to Northern Ireland.
The Political Declaration is much shorter at 26-pages long, and sets out the framework for the future relationship between the UK and EU, with the two main pillars being trade and security. Whilst this document is not legally binding and concrete negotiations on the future relationship cannot formally commence until the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019, it politically ties both sides to a broad structure, scope and objectives for the UK’s future partnership with the EU.
The EU 27 are thought to have agreed to both steps in under an hour, signifying the fact that this stage of the negotiations was always likely to be the easiest for Prime Minister Theresa May to navigate. Whilst continuing to express regret at the UK’s decision to leave, EU leaders stressed their backing for the agreement and warned that no further negotiations were possible without risking a no-deal Brexit, with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stating that "this is the best deal possible...this is the only deal possible".
However, the deal now faces its greatest challenge: gaining the approval of Parliament. This will require the backing of a majority of MPs from across the political spectrum – from hardline ‘no deal’ Brexiteers to Remainers calling for a second referendum based on the terms of Mrs May’s deal. Labour, the SNP, the DUP and many Conservative MPs have been highly critical of the deal, and the Prime Minister faces an uphill struggle to secure the majority she needs for the deal to be approved.
Whilst the date for the vote in Parliament has not been officially confirmed by the Government, it is expected to be held before the next meeting of the European Council on 13 December – possibly on 10 or 11 December. In the meantime, the Government is seeking to rally support from both the public and MPs to back the deal, with the Prime Minister writing a ‘letter to the nation’ urging the public to back the deal.
If Mrs May’s deal secures Parliament’s backing, the European Parliament would need to approve the withdrawal agreement in January/February 2019, ahead of the planned Brexit date of 29 March 2019, followed by the ‘transition period’ scheduled to end on 31 December 2020. However, it is widely anticipated that Parliament will reject the deal. At that stage, while a ‘no deal’ scenario would become most likely, other options such as an extension to Article 50, a UK general election, or even a second referendum – cannot be comprehensively ruled out.