UK on course for January Brexit as MPs approve bill

MPs have given an initial approval to the EU Withdrawal Agreement (WA) Bill by a majority of 124 votes putting the UK on course to leave the EU by January 31 – and under the Johnson government’s preferred terms.

The new version of the bill, which was submitted in a previous version for debate before the general election, removes some concessions to Opposition parties and reduces parliamentary scrutiny of the rest of the Brexit process after the UK leaves.

It also bans any extension of the transition period.

The WA Bill is required to put the WA (the main part of the Brexit ‘deal’) into UK law so it may be operational with a transition period starting on February 1. Its second reading in the House of Commons yesterday, which saw it passed through by 358 votes to 234, is also being taken by the government as a de facto ratification of the deal, so no further ‘meaningful vote’ motion will be held.

The government has allocated January 7-9 for the Committee Stage in the Commons, a more detailed debate and scrutiny of the bill, though Opposition parties say this is not enough for such an important bill.

The WA must also go through the House of Lords and the deal must be ratified by the European Parliament, before the end of January, if Brexit with the deal is to take place on schedule.

The EU is expected to publish a list of negotiating objectives in February, setting out what it considers to be fair. The UK will in turn publish its own objectives. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday said during debate on the bill that there would be "no alignment on EU rules, but instead with control of our own laws, and close and friendly relations" - a statement at odds with President Macron's recent hopes that the UK would agree to closely follow EU regulations on matters like safety, ecology and worker rights so it does not become an "unfair competitor" and so the talks may be fast.

The government believes there will then be sufficient time to negotiate the trading relationship and continuing UK/EU cooperation on a wide range of other areas before December 31, 2020. In parallell the UK will seek to start to replace the 41 trade deals it has with 71 non-EU countries as a member of the EU (it has released a list of agreements it says will be ready to go already on Brexit day).

The (non-binding) Political Declaration attached to the WA already lays out a very rough framework which could form a basis for the talks during the transition period.

The deal negotiated with the EU allows for an agreement to extend by one or two years, to be decided mutually between the UK and EU by the end of June, 2020, but the new version of the WA Bill rules out using this.

If there is no agreement or extension by the end of the year then the UK may crash out on ‘WTO terms’ at the end of next year, the hardest possible form of Brexit. If the very tight deadline is met, then the Johnson government’s current objective is a ‘Canada style’ relationship, with a free trade agreement.

During the transition period the UK would remain in the EU’s single market and customs union.

What has changed in the new Withdrawal Agreement Bill?

The new bill notably reduces the powers of Parliament. It removes:

  • A section allowing Parliament a veto over the start of future relationship talks and requiring parliamentary approval for the government’s negotiating objectives and then for any future relationship treaty negotiated with the EU.
                                  
  • A section providing protections for workers' rights that form part of EU law, after the end of the transition period. The government has said it will instead protect worker rights under its own new employment bill.

It changes a clause which previously allowed the government to make arrangements to continue financial payments to the EU for an extended period.

It also changes a clause which would have required lower UK courts after the transition period to continue to follow ECJ rulings with regard to EU law provisions that have been retained in UK law or otherwise to follow the UK Supreme Court’s interpretations of them.

The bill now allows ministers to make regulations specifying circumstances in which the lower courts can ignore the ECJ and Supreme Court.

The new bill also adds additional sections:

  • Banning ministers from agreeing to an extension of the transition period 
  • Removing current government obligations with regard to unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK who have family members in the UK.

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New Brexit deal – what has changed? [October 2019] 

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