The latest version of the British government’s Brexit bill, designed to ensure a smooth exit from the EU on January 31, was being debated in parliament on Friday.
It grants Boris Johnson’s administration enhanced powers in relation to the next phase of the process establishing the future UK-EU relationship — but reduces the powers for lawmakers.
Given the large Conservative majority delivered by the recent election, members of parliament are expected to give early approval to the revised EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
The government has set aside three days in early January for further debate. The bill has to go before the House of Lords for scrutiny, but it is expected to pass and could become law by the middle of next month.
The situation is very different from October, when parliamentary deadlock prompted the prime minister to shelve the original bill and seek – and eventually succeed in securing – a general election.
A number of significant changes have been introduced in the text of the new bill:
- An extension to the post-Brexit transition period is expressly ruled out. This phase starts on February 1 and expires on December 31, 2020. Critics have pointed out that, while the hard deadline sends a strong political message, it is legally meaningless because the law could be changed if the government changes its mind.
- Any extension to the period when money owed to the EU can be paid is also ruled out.
- Parliament loses its oversight of the government’s negotiating strategy in talks on trade and the future relationship. Gone is the obligation to seek MPs’ approval for its objectives and the eventual treaty, nor will the government have to report to parliament every three months on progress in EU talks.
- A section that promised to protect employment rights – introduced by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May – is removed; the government says this will be covered in separate legislation.
- A commitment to take unaccompanied refugee children is reduced from a legal promise to a declaration of intent.
- Ministers will be able to give lower UK courts the power to depart from EU case law.
- The government gets new powers relating to a new watchdog to be set up under the divorce deal to oversee safeguards for the rights of EU citizens living in the UK.
Other changes will see the UK’s Brexit ministry – the Department for Exiting the EU – wound up by January 31. Meanwhile. policies will be introduced to prepare for life outside the EU in areas such as farming, fishing and immigration.
What has been the reaction?
“This people’s government is moving within the first week of a new parliament to get Brexit done and deliver on the priorities of the British people” – Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons.
“The trade deal process will now be conducted in secret, with the EU Parliament having more power and scrutiny than British MPs. What happened to taking back control?” – opposition Labour MP Lisa Nandy. “Most disgracefully, Boris has u-turned on the promises made to child refugees and EU citizens – who’ve made the UK their home.”
“This is going at a massive pace. (New Conservative MPs) are basically “lobby fodder”, to use a technical term, which means they’re not really required to look at (the bill), they’re just required to vote on it” – Jill Rutter, UK in a Changing Europe/Institute for Government.
“Scrutiny and parliamentary involvement in trade deals is the global norm, to build consensus and get better deals for the country. Not a good sign that the government wants instead to keep it all secret” – David Henig, trade expert and head of the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE).
“What’s odd is that, while government could have simply removed parliament’s control over extending transition, it’s instead added the much-hyped clause preventing any extension. Which limits government, not parliament” – UCL Constitution Unit.
Trade talks: tight deadline focuses minds
European leaders have been sceptical over the short time frame envisaged to secure a trade deal. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said before the UK election that achieving a comprehensive agreement in 11 months was “unrealistic”; the new Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has since said the tight deadline leaves “very little time."
The talks will cover many other issues crucial to the future UK-EU relationship, from security and defence to fishing, education and scientific research.
Johnson’s stance has led to renewed talk of another “cliff-edge” or “no deal scenario” looming in 2020, over trade. But the more that experts, diplomats and politicians cast doubt on the timetable, the more the prime minister and his supporters insist a deal can be done.
Since the election the government has moved to scotch rumours that it may tack towards seeking a “softer” Brexit, more aligned to EU rules and perhaps easier to achieve.
Instead, the clear message from Johnson is that he wants to aim for a “hard” Brexit giving the UK maximum freedom to conduct global trade on its own terms, free from EU constraints.
The UK’s express intention to diverge from EU rules and standards in future will be uppermost in the minds of Brussels negotiators, as they seek to hold Britain to the commitment to a “level playing field”.
The firm deadline has led to speculation that ambitions may be scaled back, and that what may be struck in 2020 is a “bare bones” trade deal – while talks continue on other matters.