Britain on course for Jan 31 departure from EU

Lawmakers pass Brexit Bill; EU cautions that sealing new free trade deal may take time

Anti-Brexit protesters, including one with a placard depicting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson under the thumb of US President Donald Trump, demonstrating outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Wednesday. British lawmakers on Thursday app
Anti-Brexit protesters, including one with a placard depicting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson under the thumb of US President Donald Trump, demonstrating outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Wednesday. British lawmakers on Thursday approved a Bill authorising the country's exit from the European Union on Jan 31.PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Mr Michel Barnier, EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
Mr Michel Barnier, EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

LONDON • Britain is on course to leave the European Union at the end of the month, after lawmakers passed a long-elusive milestone on the road to Brexit by approving a Bill authorising the country's departure from the bloc.

They voted 330 to 231 on Thursday to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill which sets the terms of departure from the 28-nation bloc.

The comfortable majority won by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservatives in last month's elections secured the Bill's passage by the House of Commons despite the opposition of smaller parties.

The Bill was approved after three days of debate that brought none of the frayed tempers, late-night sessions and knife-edge votes that marked previous rounds of Brexit wrangling over the past year.

After passing through Parliament's unelected House of Lords - which can delay but not overturn the result in the Commons - the Bill should become law in time for Britain to leave the EU on Jan 31 and be the first member to quit the bloc.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said he welcomed the "constructive scrutiny" of the Lords but hoped the Upper House would not try to delay the Bill.

The vote was a major victory for Mr Johnson, who has made delivering Brexit the key aim of his premiership.


If the UK wants an open link with us for the products - zero tariffs, zero quotas - we need to be careful about zero dumping at the same time.

MR MICHEL BARNIER, EU's chief Brexit negotiator, on discussions with Britain over a post-Brexit trade deal.

Britain voted narrowly to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum. But before the Dec 12 elections, lawmakers repeatedly defeated attempts by both Mr Johnson and his predecessor Theresa May to secure backing for their Brexit blueprints.

Conservative lawmakers cheered when the result of the vote was announced. But Mr Ian Blackford of the Scottish National Party said Scotland - which voted to remain in the EU in 2016 - must now be granted a referendum on independence. Mr Johnson has said that will not happen.

"This is a constitutional crisis, because we will not and we cannot accept what is being done to us," Mr Blackford said.

Despite Mr Johnson's repeated vow to "get Brexit done" on Jan 31, the departure will only mark the start of the first stage of the EU exit.


Britain and the EU will then launch into negotiations on their future relationship, racing to strike new ties for trade, security and other areas by the end of 2020.

"Leaving the EU doesn't mean that we will have got Brexit done," said Mr Paul Blomfield, a Brexit spokesman for the main opposition Labour Party. "The difficult stage is yet to come."

Top EU officials are already saying that sealing a new deal will be tough. EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Thursday said Britain's goal of striking a full free trade agreement by the end-of-year deadline that Mr Johnson insists on was unrealistic.

"We cannot expect to agree on every aspect of this new partnership," Mr Barnier said, adding: "We are ready to do our best in the 11 months."

International trade deals typically take years to complete, but Mr Johnson has ruled out extending a post-Brexit transition period agreed by the two sides beyond the end of 2020, although the EU has offered to prolong it until 2022.

That has set off alarm bells among businesses which fear Britain could face a "no-deal" Brexit at the start of 2021. Economists say that would disrupt trade with the EU - Britain's biggest trading partner - and plunge the United Kingdom into recession.

Britain and the EU will have to strike deals on everything from trade in goods and services, to fishing and aviation, to medicines and security. The EU insists there is no way to deal with all these issues in less than a year.

British officials have suggested they could carve the negotiations up into chunks, sealing deals one sector at a time.


The two sides also have conflicting demands that are likely to complicate negotiations.

Mr Johnson says Britain is seeking a wide-ranging free trade deal with the bloc, but does not want to agree to keep all EU rules and standards. It wants to be free to diverge in order to strike new trade deals around the world.

But the EU says Britain will not get good access to its market unless it agrees to alignment. EU officials worry that Britain plans to cut environmental and employment standards to position itself as a low-regulation, low-tax rival to the bloc.

The EU has stressed the need for a level playing field in the upcoming trade negotiations, meaning that access to its market will be linked to commitments to standards in areas including workers' rights and the environment.

"If the UK wants an open link with us for the products - zero tariffs, zero quotas - we need to be careful about zero dumping at the same time," Mr Barnier told a conference in Stockholm.


Next steps in Brexit

LONDON • British MPs finally approved the terms of Brexit, paving the way for Britain to leave the European Union on Jan 31 and for trade talks with Brussels to begin.

Here are the next key steps:


MPs in the lower parliamentary House of Commons completed their scrutiny of the deal that Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck with Brussels in October.

It now goes to the un-elected upper House of Lords where, unlike the Commons, Mr Johnson has no majority. However, the scale of his victory in last month's general election and the approval of MPs mean peers are unlikely to make any major changes.

The Lords will begin debating the deal on Monday, with the Bill likely to pass into law by Jan 22 or 23.


The Brexit deal must also be ratified by the European Parliament.

MEPs have been waiting to see what London does after years of political wrangling, but are now expected to approve it on Jan 29.


With the divorce terms confirmed, Britain will leave the EU on the next deadline set with Brussels, on Jan 31 at 2300 GMT.

This comes 43 months after Britons voted in the June 2016 referendum to end their nearly half a century of integration with the EU.


Britain says it is ready to start trade talks on Feb 1 but the EU must work out its position.

Negotiators in Brussels began discussing this week what member states want from the negotiations.

According to two officials, the EU mandate could be approved by national ministers on Feb 25, unless pressure rises to advance the schedule.

Officials on both sides have suggested trade talks could begin around March 1.


The deal includes a transition phase in which relations remain the same in practice until Dec 31.

Britain can ask to extend the period for one or two years, but must inform the EU of its request by July 1.

Mr Johnson insists there will be no extension.


Without an extension, existing relations between Britain and the EU will be severed on Dec 31.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2020, with the headline 'Britain on course for Jan 31 departure from EU'. Print Edition | Subscribe