Brexit: British Parliament debates withdrawal bill

The UK parliament has started a debate on when the two-year negotiating period for Brexit should end. Some MPs are questioning whether there should be a fixed time at all.

The British Parliament on Tuesday started debating the controversial "EU Withdrawal Bill" that is set to test Prime Minister Theresa May's increasingly fragile coalition government.

Politics | 14.11.2017

The bill – also known as the "Repeal Bill" – will import decades of EU law into British law.

According to the government, the bill will help businesses by giving them legal certainty after Britain leaves the union in March 2019. But a group of pro-EU Conservatives are skeptical, and they are threatening to block the government unless clear concessions are made to avoid a "hard Brexit."

Read more: Britain must avoid 'fatal' hard Brexit, European business leaders warn

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June 2016: 'The will of the British people'

After a shrill referendum campaign, nearly 52 percent of British voters opted to leave the EU on June 24. Polls had shown a close race before the vote with a slight lead for those favoring remaining in the EU. Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had campaigned for Britain to stay, acknowledged the 'will of the British people' and resigned the following morning.

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July 2016: 'Brexit means Brexit'

The former Home Secretary Theresa May replaced David Cameron as prime minister on July 11 and promised the country that "Brexit means Brexit." May had quietly supported the remain campaign before the referendum. She did not initially say when her government would trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty to start the two-year talks leading to Britain's formal exit.

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March 2017: 'We already miss you'

May eventually signed a diplomatic letter over six months later on March 29, 2017 to trigger Article 50. Hours later, Britain's ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, handed the note to European Council President Donald Tusk. Britain's exit was officially set for March 29, 2019. Tusk ended his brief statement on the decision with: "We already miss you. Thank you and goodbye."

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June 2017: And they're off!

British Brexit Secretary David Davis and the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, kicked off talks in Brussels on June 19. The first round ended with Britain reluctantly agreeing to follow the EU's timeline for the rest of the negotiations. The timeline splits talks into two phases. The first settles the terms of Britain's exit and the second the terms of the EU-UK relationship post-Brexit.

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July-October 2017: Money, rights, and Ireland

The second round of talks in mid-July began with an unflattering photo of a seemingly unprepared British team. It and subsequent rounds ended with little progress on three phase one issues: How much Britain still needed to pay into the EU budget after it leaves, the post-Brexit rights of EU and British citizens, and whether Britain could keep an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

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November 2017: May pays out?

Progress appeared to have been made after round six in early November with Britain reportedly agreeing to pay up to £50 billion (€57 billion/$68 billion) for the "divorce bill." May had earlier said she was only willing to pay €20 billion, while the EU had calculated some €60 billion euros. Reports of Britain's concession sparked outrage among pro-Brexit politicians and media outlets.

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December 2017: Green light for phase 2

Leaders of the remaining 27 EU members formally agreed that "sufficient progress" had been made to move on to phase 2. Talks will now focus on a transition period and the future trading relationship between the two sides. While the Britain's Theresa May expressed her delight, European Council President Donald Tusk ominously warned that the second stage of talks will be "dramatically difficult."

Power struggle

The introduction of 186 pages of amendments to water down the bill are to be debated in the next few weeks.

Labour MPs have also said they will try to get a parliamentary vote on an amendment that would maintain the status quo for a transition period after Brexit.

For its part, the government wants to write in a formal leaving date, a move some lawmakers have criticized for making the timeline of Brexit inflexible.

Pro-Brexit lawmakers fear Britain may never leave the EU. Pro-EU lawmakers are concerned that if a date is fixed, Britain would have no flexibility in talks and may end up with no deal. 

Read more: Brexit Diaries 17: Get ready for a car crash

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Hard or soft options

It's essentially a choice of a harder or softer Brexit. Harder prioritizes border control over trade. UK firms would pay tariffs to do business in the EU, and vice versa. The softest Brexit would see access to the single market, or at least a customs union, maintained. That would require concessions — including the payment of a hefty "divorce bill" — to which the UK has provisionally agreed.

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A leap into the unknown

Businesses have expressed concern about a "cliff edge" scenario, where Britain leaves the EU with no deal. Even if an agreement is reached at the EU bloc level, the worry is that it could be rejected at the last minute. Each of the 27 remaining countries must ratify the arrangements, and any might reject them. That could mean chaos for businesses and individuals.

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No deal - better than a bad deal?

If there is no agreement at all, a fully sovereign UK would be free to strike new trade deals and need not make concessions on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK or pay the financial settlement of outstanding liabilities. However, trade would be crippled. UK citizens in other parts of the EU would be at the mercy of host governments. There would also be a hard EU-UK border in Ireland.

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Divorce-only deal

The EU and the UK could reach a deal on Britain's exiting the bloc without an agreement on future relations. This scenario would still be a very hard Brexit, but would at least demonstrate a degree of mutual understanding. Trade agreements would be conducted, on an interim basis, on World Trade Organization rules.

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Limited arrangement, like with Canada

Most trade tariffs on exported goods are lifted, except for "sensitive" food items like eggs and poultry. However, exporters would have to show their products are genuinely "made in Britain" so the UK does not become a "back door" for global goods to enter the EU. Services could be hit more. The City of London would lose access to the passporting system its lucrative financial business relies on.

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Bespoke deal: Swiss model

Under the Swiss model, the UK would have single market access for goods and services while retaining most aspects of national sovereignty. Switzerland, unlike other members of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), did not join the European Economic Area (EEA) and was not automatically obliged to adopt freedom of movement. Under a bilateral deal, it agreed to do so but is still dragging its feet.

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The Norway way

As part of the European Economic Area, Norway has accepted freedom of movement – something that no Brexit-supporting UK government would be likely to do. Norway still has to obey many EU rules and is obliged to make a financial contribution to the bloc while having no voting rights. Some see this as the worst of both worlds.

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A Turkey-style customs union

Turkey is the only major country to have a customs union with the EU, as part of a bilateral agreement. Under such an arrangement, the UK would not be allowed to negotiate trade deals outside the EU, instead having the bloc negotiate on its behalf. Many Brexiteers would be unwilling to accept this. It would, however, help minimize disruption at ports and, crucially, at the Irish border.

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No deal, no Brexit?

EU President Donald Tusk says the outcome of the talks depends on Britain, citing a good deal, bad deal or "no Brexit" as possible options. However, with both of the UK's major political parties – the Conservatives and Labour – committed to going ahead with Brexit, that looks unlikely.

May's weakness

Successful attempts by Parliament to amend the Withdrawal Bill will challenge May, who is already politically weak after losing her party's parliamentary majority in a snap election in June. In the last few weeks, she has also lost two senior ministers in separate scandals.

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The British weekly Sunday Times newspaper has reported that up to 40 Conservative MPs would vote to oust May in a no-confidence vote.

May's government is also negotiating a separate exit deal with the EU in Brussels. Little progress has been made after six rounds of talks as both sides continue to disagree on how much Britain owes the EU for exiting the bloc.

On Monday, Brexit Minister David Davis said that Parliament would get to vote on any final deal in what appeared to be a bowing to parliamentary pressure.

Read more: Brexit: UK Parliament to vote on final deal

amp/rc (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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