The government “ruling out” extending the transition period

5th November 2019

Here we go again.

The United Kingdom government has announced that, if the Brexit happens on the basis of the current draft withdrawal agreement, then the transition period will not be extended beyond its current expiry of 31 December 2020.

(By way of background, the “transition period” is, in effect, a standstill period, with the UK still being bound by European Union law but outside the EU.)

Here is a tweet from a political reporter:

And here is a tweet from the current trade secretary:

Where do you begin with this?


Let’s start with the current draft withdrawal agreement.

Article 126 provides for a transition period:

“There shall be a transition or implementation period, which shall start on the date of entry into force of this Agreement and end on 31 December 2020.”

Article 132(1) then provides for how that extension can be extended by agreement:

“Notwithstanding Article 126, the Joint Committee may, before 1 July 2020, adopt a single decision extending the transition period for up to one or two years.

(The “Joint Committee” will be the all-powerful, though potentially non-transparent UK-EU entity that supervises the transition period.)

(EDIT – please note that in the first draft agreement’s protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, there was also a further provision which provides for one situation when the UK can make a request for an extension – but this provision was removed from the revised version of the draft agreement:

The United Kingdom, having had regard to progress made towards conclusion of the agreement referred to in Articles 1(4) and 2(1) of this Protocol, may at any time before 1 July 2020 request the extension of the transition period referred to in Article 126 of the Withdrawal Agreement. If the United Kingdom makes such a request, the transition period may be extended in accordance with Article 132 of the Withdrawal Agreement.

You can see that this then referred back to two other provisions.

Article 1(4) of that protocol which provided:

The objective of the Withdrawal Agreement is not to establish a permanent relationship between the Union and the United Kingdom. The provisions of this Protocol are therefore intended to apply only temporarily, taking into account the commitments of the Parties set out in Article 2(1). The provisions of this Protocol shall apply unless and until they are superseded, in whole or in part, by a subsequent agreement

And Article 2(1) of that protocol which provided:

The Union and the United Kingdom shall use their best endeavours to conclude, by 31 December 2020, an agreement which supersedes this Protocol in whole or in part.  )


In essence, what all that legal prose provides is that there is a transition period to 31 December 2020, that the transition period can be extended by agreement for one or two years the UK has a specific basis for asking for an extension.

The maximum by which the transition period can be extended until is 31 December 2022.

So both the UK and EU, within the draft agreement itself, contemplate potential extensions.

And both the UK and EU contemplate implicitly that this may not be achieved (this can be inferred by the “best endeavours” provision, which presupposes potential failure by only holding the parties to trying for that outcome, not achieving it).


There are a couple of crucial legal-procedural points to note.

First, once the UK is out of the EU then Article 50 will cease to apply.

This means that any amendments to the withdrawal agreement will (probably) not be capable of being done with Article 50 as a legal basis.

The draft withdrawal agreement itself at Article 164(5)(d) appears to provide that the Joint Committee cannot amend the withdrawal agreement in respect of several matters, including the length of the transition period.

In other words, the EU may not find it legally easy to agree to amendments to the set transition period(s) once the UK leaves.

There will therefore be, under the current draft agreement, a genuinely hard long-stop date for the transition period of 31 December 2022.


Second, the date of 31 December 2020 was in the first published draft agreement (of November 2018).

It has remained unchanged, even though an entire year has passed, eating into that envisaged period.

What was, in November 2018, a generous-ish transition period of nearly two years will, come a departure on 31 January 2020, a far tighter period of just eleven months.

There is no reason to believe that the UK is now in a better position to achieve in eleven months what it expected to achieve in nearly two years.

The EU has its own reasons, tied to the budget cycle and the financial settlement, for sticking to the 31 December 2020 (and 2021 and 2022) dates, but the fact remains: the UK has lost over a year for the transition since the publication of the first full draft.


And now we return to the government “ruling out” an extension.

On a legal(istic) point, once the agreement is executed, it may not be legally possible for the government to fetter its own discretion in respect of applying for an extension.

There is an argument that it is bound to keep its right to request an extension under review, regardless of any policy on requesting extension. 

And if the UK faces a “no deal” Brexit on 31 December 2020 then either parliamentary intervention (another Benn Act) or judicial intervention (to oblige the government to consider exercising its discretion) would be virtually certain.


But moving on from law and legalism, there is no sensible way the UK government would be able to put in place a full trade agreement in eleven months.

(It has, for example, taken a year for there to be the changes to the Ireland protocol in the current draft.)

There are dozens of areas of trade and policy which will need to be negotiated – to grasp just some of the practical issues which need to be addressed just look at Part Three of the withdrawal agreement.

And those practical issues are in addition to wider agreements on tariffs and other measures.

And any trade agreement, in turn, will need to be ratified by all EU27 states, some including referendums.

All in eleven months?

Getting close to agreement on all these matters by the hard long-stop date of 31 December 2022 is, as they say, ambitious (that is, highly unlikely).

Either the transition period will have to be extended or a “No Deal” Brexit has only been postponed and will now happen on 31 December 2020.


So what explains the statements from Number 10 and from the trade secretary that, regardless of any circumstance, the transition period will end on 31 December 2020?

The only possible explanations can be those two enduring features of government Brexit policy: ignorance and dishonesty.

A trade deal cannot be agreed by 31 December 2020, and to contend that it can be either means you do not know what you are talking about or you are knowingly misleading the media and the voters.

Over three years after the referendum, the government still has not learned key lessons of Brexit: of being realistic about what can be done, and about being honest about what is possible.


If you value this free constitutional, legal and policy commentary here (and on Twitter) please feel free to become a Patreon subscriber.


My Twitter feed is here and I also now have a Facebook page where I will be linking to my posts and podcasts, so you can share them with those who may be interested in the public understanding of law.

Please also subscribe to this blog, there is subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).


Comments are welcome but pre-moderated, and they will not be published if irksome. 

11 thoughts on “The government “ruling out” extending the transition period”

  1. So any request for an extension not only has to be made but also has to be adopted by the Joint Committee by 1 July – six months before the transition period ends. No time to wait to see how negotiations are going. Request has to be agreed within 5 months of departure (by end June) so presumably made within about 4 months (end May)…

  2. Does not No. 10’s (ignorance and) dishonesty in making this new – impossible – ‘commitment’ automatically mean that they are failing to make ‘best endeavours’ since they are evidently talking nonsense?

  3. I wonder why the transitional period wasn’t extended, eg, by substituting “end two years after departure” for “end on 31 December 2020”, when the departure date was extended. They must have thought about it.

  4. There are just four possible explanations of these pronouncements:
    • meaningless political posturing: sound-bites thrown into the election campaign without any connection to reality, nor any care as to whether they should have
    • a non-too-subtly coded (and mendacious: “We will be able to negotiate a good free trade deal with the EU and other partners in that timeframe”) declaration that a “No Deal” Brexit is in fact now the objective of the Conservative leadership
    and, as you so correctly point out:
    • ignorance
    • dishonesty.

    One cannot of course rule out the likelihood that all four apply in one way another. Each, in its way, is symbolic of a catastrophic degradation of our political culture (though I’m certainly not evoking a “fall” from the grace of any recent golden age!).

    The first possibility tragically seems entirely characteristic of the level of most political debate in modern Britain, and certainly will be typical of this election campaign.

    The inherent contradiction in the second is all too typical of Johnson’s corrosive Berlusconi-style approach: to say everything and its opposite on the basis that the the voter hears what he wants to hear (“and disregards the rest”).

    What is especially striking and repellent to me is the degree of ignorance presumed *of the electorate*, or at least the presumption that the electorate has no choice but to accept being treated this way.

    As a side comment, I find it notable that the behaviour of the Government has finally overpowered your usual wise reservations about alleging dishonesty. I suppose the “facts speak for themselves!”.

  5. I can only think that Johnson, Gove, Truss aren’t lying (just for a change)—that they mean what they say when they say there won’t be an extension: they intend a NoDeal exit on 31 Dec 2020.
    When Johnson wrote in The Telegraph on 06 January 2019 that a No Deal Brexit was the option most preferred by the British public, this had to be corrected thanks to complaints of its falsehood made through IPSO. Presumably he’ll repeat the lie on an annual basis. Corrections never serve to undo the damage done by getting people to believe the lies.
    Johnson’s lying has reached pathological proportions. And as with the Trump and the Republicans, woe betide any Tory who doesn’t contradict him.

    1. “I can only think that Johnson, Gove, Truss aren’t lying (just for a change)—that they mean what they say when they say there won’t be an extension: they intend a NoDeal exit on 31 Dec 2020”

      Sadly, though, in today’s UK there has been a final breakdown and divorce in the relationship between meaning what they say and accepting and taking responsibility for the ineluctable consequences which follow, both from the content and from the saying.

      For example, one of the dominant feature of the last few years has been a completely fatuous debate about how the UK will exempt itself from all the regulations and practical measures upon which free cross-border commerce in Europe is founded, yet will simultaneously continue to enjoy “frictionless” trade with the continent.

      The same Government which has been preparing to turn Kent into the world’s largest lorry park in anticipation of the “benefits” of this freedom from friction, has been assuring us that there would be no appreciable consequences at all for several hundred border-crossings and their local communities in Ireland.

      It’s *all* incoherent nonsense!

      1. I meant to add that, by the consequences of the “saying” I meant that:
        when a government spends several years spewing out nothing but incoherent and contradictory nonsense about its plans, then other countries and international businesses will draw the inevitable conclusions that —
        • they most likely *have* no cogent or practically realisable plans
        • there is little or nothing which can be trusted, let alone upon which anybody can depend.

  6. “Over three years after the referendum, the government still has not learned key lessons of Brexit: of being realistic about what can be done, and about being honest about what is possible.”

    A worse and very real possibility is that the government HAS learned the key lesson of Brexit: it doesn’t matter if you lie to the electorate. If you tell them you’re going to do what they want, they will forgive, or not even notice, when it turns out that you don’t.

    At this stage, I honestly don’t think they have any other priority than continuing to get elected. And all the polling says that their increasingly cynical strategy is going to achieve just that.

  7. I think there is a typo in here as provided or some such seems to be missing:
    In essence, what all that legal prose provides is that there is a transition period to 31 December 2020, that the transition period can be extended by agreement for one or two years PROVIDED the UK has a specific basis for asking for an extension.

    Minor point. Main point is that they just can’t seem to stop lying about just about anything. I find hard to believe anyone would take anything this charlatan says seriously.

  8. The question I have is can the WA be amended? most agreements provide for both parties to amend them in writing. If this is the case then the WA transition period could surely just be extended by making a change to the date which it can be extended to?
    Having an absolute cap on extension at 2 years makes no sense at all. Are we supposed to agree everything but say the thickness of ginger beer bottles that can enter the EU single market area by 31 Dec 2022 and then crash out with no deal for want of that one frankly silly missing item?

  9. Secondly, it is vital to signal to the EU that there is no prospect whatever of any extension to the transition period, in order to force them to negotiate seriously and in a timely way. If the EU are allowed to think that they can lig around spending 3 years negotiating with us, they will take that time. If they allowed five years, they will take that time and then only do a deal at the last minute.

Leave a Reply to Phil Jones Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.