He outlined the political calendar for the next several days and, depending on which scenario emerges, for the months ahead. The world should have more clarity by Thursday 14 March.
Here’s why. In recent weeks London has been making its case with Brussels about refining the UK withdrawal agreement that was reached with the EU last November, with the main sticking point being the Irish border backstop (which would compel the UK to keep a certain level of legal alignment with the EU until both sides conclude an definitive deal).
“The intensity of those talks obviously is increasing as we get closer to the deadline”, Marshall told the conference. Theresa May, the British prime minister, has promised the UK parliament a “second meaningful vote” on the deal by 12 March, he explained. That means the PM has until next Tuesday to secure changes from the European Commission and EU leaders and then get British MPs to agree.
Agree, extend or reject
If MPs reject the deal, “then there will be a vote the following day, Wednesday 13 March, with parliament asked the question ‘should the UK leave the EU on 29 March without a deal?’”
If parliament rejects that motion (meaning MPs do not want a hard Brexit), “there will be third vote on Thursday of next week, asking if parliament wants the government to seek an extension to article 50”, Marshall stated. “It’s a question of seeking an extension because the EU will have to agree to it”.
On the other hand, MPs could vote for a hard Brexit. “If we end up leaving without a deal then we have been working towards that scenario as a number of possible scenarios for quite some time now, just as the European Commission and the EU27 have done”. Measures have been put in place, Marshall said, to keep things ticking over in finance, transport, citizens’ rights and other areas. “It’s not a scenario that we want… but everyone is planning for that possibility”.
Vote in favour of current deal
If the withdrawal agreement passes the British parliament, both sides have 21 months to implement the final details of the divorce. The “political declaration” reached between the EU and UK at the same time as the withdrawal agreement “gives our shared vision of the future. This will require an awful amount of negotiations and we’ll have to move very quickly” to agree to all the terms by the end of transition period, in December 2020, he said.
Marshall was asked by a conference attendee why the UK government was not considering a second referendum on Brexit. He replied that “the government has been focused on implementing the decision of the referendum from the outset”. While “the issue of a second referendum has constantly been in the background of these efforts, I think that it is very debatable that there’d be anything like a majority for something like that” in the UK parliament. It’s a “very divisive proposition.”
The UK also needs to heal divisions and tackle other pressing issues, he noted. “The prime minister has been making the point for some time now that it’s time to come together” as a nation, which “will be easier when we have greater certainty” about its future relationship with the EU.
Marshall observed that “Brexit has consumed a huge amount of government attention” and other issues “have not had the space they need”. For example, addressing the needs of the so-called “just managing” families struggling to make ends meet.