The UK moved closer to leaving the EU on Friday (20 December) as lawmakers comfortably passed Boris Johnson’s Brexit Withdrawal bill.
A week after Johnson claimed a decisive general election victory that gave his Conservative Party an 80 seat majority in the House of Commons, his bill passed by a comfortable 358 to 234 margin and is now expected to pass easily into law in January.
During his election campaign, which was based around the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’, Johnson promised a pre-Christmas vote on the Brexit bill as an ‘early Christmas present’.
“Now is the moment – as we leave the European Union – to reunite our country and allow the warmth and natural affection that we all share with our European neighbours – to find renewed expression in one great new national project of building a deep, special and democratically accountable partnership with those nations we are proud to call our closest friends,” Johnson told MPs.
He said that on 31 January, “the sorry story of the last three-and-a-half years will be at an end”.
The bill enshrines the Withdrawal Agreement finalised by Johnson and EU leaders in October but – in a sign of Johnson’s new-found dominance of UK politics – it removes a number of concessions that were made in the autumn as Johnson sought, unsuccessfully, to break the political deadlock in the UK parliament.
These include a commitment to align UK law with the EU on workers’ rights, while legal protections for refugee children reunited with family members in the UK have also been watered down.
Meanwhile, a requirement for UK lawmakers to approve the mandate for talks on future relations and on a new EU-UK treaty has also been scrapped, leaving such decisions entirely in the hands of Johnson’s government.
Johnson has also introduced an amendment that makes the December 2020 deadline, when the post-Brexit transition period is due to end, legally binding.
That move has effectively put the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit back on the table, with most UK and EU trade experts warning that there is very little chance of anything other than a ‘bare bones’ trade agreement being struck and ratified by next December.
The measures prompted opposition parties, led by a weakened Labour party, to oppose the bill.
Talks with the EU on a post-Brexit trade relationship are expected to begin in the New Year. Earlier this week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament that the EU executive would have a negotiating mandate ready on 1 February.
Von der Leyen warned that the eleven-month window of negotiations was “extremely challenging” and that policymakers could again face “a cliff-edge situation” late next year.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]