Parliament Joins the Battle Over Brexit
By: Analysis | Stratfor.comNovember 16, 2017
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Parliament Joins the Battle Over Brexit
  • The EU Withdrawal Bill that will transfer EU rules and norms into British law, a crucial part of the Brexit process, has entered the lower House of Commons for debate and is scheduled for final approval in early 2018.
  • Lawmakers in both the governing Conservative party and the opposition Labour party are criticizing the bill and will need to address various controversial topics before the end of the year.
  • Political infighting could lead to the appointment of a new prime minister, though replacing British Prime Minister Theresa May with another Conservative politician won’t heal party divisions.

The British Parliament has begun answering important questions about the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union. On Nov. 14, the EU Withdrawal Bill, which will repeal the European Communities Act of 1973 and transfer EU rules and norms into British law, entered the committee stage in the lower House of Commons. The lower house will debate and vote on hundreds of amendment proposals until late December, when the bill will be sent to the upper House of Lords for discussion and approval in early 2018.

The bill has a simple goal: Ensure legal continuity after Britain leaves the bloc. Over time, British authorities will have the chance to decide what to keep, what to amend and what to scrap. But lawmakers in both the governing Conservative party and the opposition Labour party are criticizing this crucial step of the Brexit process. Although the government managed to agree on several proposed amendments during the first day of debate, the most controversial topics remain and will need to be addressed before the end of the year.

Criticism From All Sides

Broadly speaking, there are three main areas of disagreement over the Withdrawal Bill. The first criticism is that it gives British Prime Minister Theresa May's Cabinet too much power over how EU norms will be transferred to the United Kingdom. The British Parliament wants more say in deciding the future of EU norms affecting a variety of issues, ranging from agriculture and energy to employment rights and banking rules. The governments of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are also criticizing the bill, arguing that some repatriated powers should be transferred to regional governments, with the Scottish government being particularly vocal. May has promised the central government will eventually transfer attributions to the regional governments, but so far the promises remain vague.

The second criticism is over May's decision to have the Withdrawal Bill specificy a time and date for Britain's departure from the bloc. Currently, the bill states that the United Kingdom will cease to be an EU member at 11:00 pm on March 29, 2019. May's decision is meant to appease hardline Brexit supporters, who fear that negotiations with the European Union could go on indefinitely and are demanding concrete indications that Britain is committed to leaving. But some lawmakers, both in the Conservative and Labour parties, believe setting a specific departure date closes the door for a negotiation extension. Brexit negotiations are supposed to last two years according to the EU treaty, but that period can be extended if EU members unanimously decide to provide additional time to negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement. According to British media, at least 15 Conservative lawmakers are already willing to vote against May on this issue. 

The debate over Brexit comes at an already difficult time for May, who is leading a fragile and divided minority government.

The third criticism concerns the British Parliament's role in finalizing the agreement between London and Brussels. The British government has said that Parliament will only vote after the agreement is signed in a "take it or leave it" vote which would leave no room to first modify the deal's contents. The rationale for this strategy is that, should Parliament reject the deal, Britain would leave the European Union without an agreement to govern their future bilateral relationship. To avoid such an outcome, Parliament would be under significant pressure to ratify whatever deal London reaches with Brussels. As a result, Conservative and Labour lawmakers want Parliamentary influence over the agreement before it's signed.

Divisions That Won't Heal

These debates come at an already difficult time, with May leading a fragile and divided minority government. A worse-than-expected performance by the Conservatives in the June general elections did little to smooth the frictions. Some sectors would like the United Kingdom to remain as close to the EU single market as possible, arguing in favor of a long transition period after Brexit to allow companies and households to prepare. Other sectors seek a clean and fast break with the European Union, and have expressed veiled criticism of May's leadership. 

The rank and file in Parliament — both Conservative and Labour — are divided on Brexit as well. This means that even if some Conservative lawmakers stage a rebellion against the law, May could garner enough votes from Labour lawmakers to push the law through regardless. And May's difficulties in guaranteeing the votes she needs are unlikely to disappear, as the Conservatives aren't interested in another gamble that could result in political defeat. Although the appointment of another prime minister cannot be ruled out, replacing May with another Conservative politician won't heal the party's divisions given the current political environment.

Nevertheless, the Withdrawal Bill will offer clarity on several aspects of the Brexit process. Though battles will continue regardless. The United Kingdom and the European Union have so far failed to conclude the first part of the Brexit negotiations — which focuses on the terms of Britain's exit — and move to the second part — which focuses on the future trade agreement. EU member states will assess the status of the negotiations during a summit on Dec. 14-15, but with key issues such as Britain's financial contributions to the bloc still unresolved, progress will be slow.

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