It is fair to say that the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the news cycle this year, so you can apologize for thinking about what is happening with Brexit.
Well, the UK’s departure from the European Union is now fully back on the agenda after a big day of developments in London.
Let’s break it …
What happened in the UK parliament?
On Monday, Parliament voted on a controversial new bill published by the government.
It is worth noting that the UK is currently in a period known as the transition, which keeps it tied to EU rules until 31 December.
The two sides are trying to negotiate a new trade agreement that will enter into force after this period ends, but talks have reached a stalemate.
So, at a grassroots level, the government’s new Internal Market Bill seeks to prevent trade disruptions between the four UK countries unless an agreement is reached with the EU. The government has described it as a “vital legal safety net”.
The bill aims to ensure that regulations between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are merged because – once the UK leaves the EU – they will have the power to set their own rules in areas such as food safety and air quality.
But this has attracted a lot of criticism (we will explain why later).
And after a hot day of debate in Parliament on Monday, the government won a vote to pass the bill to the next stage by 340 to 263.
This was not a big surprise – Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a significant majority – but the dispute is never over.
Why has the bill been criticized?
There are several reasons. In fact, the bill has even drawn criticism from senior figures in the ruling Conservative Party and former prime ministers.
This is because it seeks to annul parts of the Brexit agreement between the UK and the EU that entered into force in January.
This agreement, known as the withdrawal agreement, is a comprehensive international treaty. It is a legal agreement.
A key part of that deal is the agreement that Northern Ireland will continue to follow some EU rules even after Brexit happens. This was created to prevent the return of a strong border between Northern Ireland (which is in the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which is in the EU).
But the final bill would go against the withdrawal agreement – and therefore international law – by allowing UK ministers to “not apply” the previously agreed rules regarding Northern Ireland unless there is a trade agreement with EU.
That is why a government minister recently acknowledged that the bill would “break international law” in a “specific and limited way”, sparking a barrage of criticism and even some resignations.
- How can the Northern Ireland Brexit agreement change?
- What is the controversy over the UK ‘internal markets’ about?
Critics say withdrawing a legally binding treaty would damage the UK’s reputation and global position. And the EU is clear that it wants the proposals rejected.
Mr Johnson, meanwhile, has said the government is simply seeking to avoid disruption and protect the integrity of the UK.
But the bill is also controversial within the nations of the UK. Under the proposed law, they would have to accept goods at standards set in each country, fueling fears that quality controls for things like food could be pulled to a lower common denominator.
Why is it important?
The UK and EU are now in the final weeks of negotiations on a post-Brexit trade deal, with informal talks taking place in Brussels this week.
But controversy over the bill is threatening to disrupt discussions that have already stalled, over time.
“Violation of international law is unacceptable and does not create the confidence we need to build our future relationship,” European Council President Charles Michel said last week.
This matters because Mr Johnson has threatened to leave the negotiations if a trade deal is not agreed before October 15th.
And an exit without an agreement would have profound consequences for the UK and its relations with Europe. For example, the UK will have to apply tariffs on goods coming into the country from the EU and vice versa.
There are also internal political implications to consider. The bill divided opinion within Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party and a number of members voted against moving it to the next stage.
Five former prime ministers also expressed opposition to the proposal.
So, regardless of whether this bill becomes law, how this saga unfolds is likely to have an impact on the prime minister’s stance both within his party and with the EU.
And while legislation passed in Monday’s vote is likely to face more difficulties in its later stages, including when it heads for debate in the second chamber of parliament, the House of Lords.
So for now, look at this space.
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