Britain's parliament gears up to fast-track Brexit deal

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LONDON — After 10 months of tense negotiations with the EU on a post-Brexit trade agreement, ratifying the future relationship deal in the U.K. parliament will be all plain sailing for Boris Johnson.

British lawmakers are expected to rubber-stamp legislation enshrining the accord into law in just one day and without any major last-minute controversy, after Labour and Conservative hardline Brexiteers declared their support for the 80-page European Union (Future Relationship) Bill.

The draft legislation, submitted to the U.K. parliament on Tuesday, is expected to make its way through the House of Commons and the House of Lords and receive royal assent by the end of Wednesday, a Downing Street spokesperson said. The British prime minister will open the second reading debate in the Commons at 9:30 a.m., local time, on Wednesday. U.K. Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove will deliver the closing remarks before MPs vote on the bill at 2:30 p.m.

In his opening speech, Johnson will herald the bill as proof of “how Britain can be at once European and sovereign,” according to advance quotes.

“Those of us who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU never sought a rupture with our closest neighbors,” he is expected to say. “We would never wish to rupture ourselves from fellow democracies beneath whose soil lie British war graves in tranquil cemeteries, often tended by local schoolchildren, testament to our shared struggle for freedom and everything we cherish in common. What we sought was not a rupture but a resolution, a resolution of the old and vexed question of Britain’s political relations with Europe, which bedeviled our post-War history.”

The legislation will make its way to the House of Lords at about 3 p.m. A total of 145 peers are down to speak during the second reading in the Lords, each being allowed to talk for about three minutes. The final vote in the Lords could take place as late as 11 p.m., with royal assent scheduled for close to midnight.

The last piece of good news for Johnson landed on Tuesday afternoon, when the European Research Group of Euroskeptic Tories recommended that its members vote in favor of the Brexit legislation, following a “star chamber” meeting of its Brexiteer lawyers.

“Our overall conclusion is that the agreement preserves the U.K.’s sovereignty as a matter of law and fully respects the norms of international sovereign-to-sovereign treaties,” the ERG said in a statement.

The group lamented that the so-called level playing field clauses of the Brexit deal, designed to ensure the U.K. does not undercut the EU’s single market by lowering standards, “go further than in comparable trade agreements, but their impact on the practical exercise of sovereignty is likely to be limited if addressed by a robust government.”

The ERG, chaired by Tory MP Mark Francois, said it was satisfied that these clauses do not prevent the U.K. from changing its laws as it sees fit at a risk of retaliation, and the government can terminate the agreement on 12 months’ notice if it deems the EU’s countermeasures to be unacceptable.

Labour faces internal rebellion

For Labour leader Keir Starmer, however, Wednesday’s vote has a bittersweet taste. Starmer declared his party’s support for the deal last week even before reading the text, arguing the choice was between a “thin” agreement and a no-deal outcome, which he said would be even worse for the British economy.

However, he is now facing a high-profile rebellion over his decision, with former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and ex-Cabinet Ministers Clive Lewis and Ben Bradshaw among the signatories of a statement calling on opposition parties not to support the “rotten” agreement.

“We are witnessing an act of vandalism against our livelihoods, our rights and our horizons,” the statement reads. “We call on Labour, the Labour movement and other opposition parties not to support the Tories’ Brexit deal when it is put to a vote in the House of Commons.”

Ahead of the Commons debate, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds urged the government to step up support to businesses hit the hardest by the new trading arrangements and speed up the recruitment and training of customs agents and officials. She also called for a “short” period of “regulatory forbearance” to help companies transition to the new rules.

“The fact that a catastrophic no-deal scenario has been avoided means that many businesses across the country are now breathing a sigh of relief. But the government’s irresponsible, eleventh-hour approach to the negotiations means there are many questions still unanswered with just days to go until the end of the transition period,” Dodds said. “After a year of unprecedented upheaval, that puts even more pressure on businesses which are now facing a highly uncertain start to the new year.”

Labour is the only opposition party expected to back the deal. The Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the Democratic Unionist Party have all said they will oppose it.

Ratification in the Westminster parliament, however, does not mean the end of the process, since the European Parliament’s approval is also required. Although MEPs are not expected to ratify the deal before March 2021, EU ambassadors on Monday unanimously approved its provisional application until February 28.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel will sign the future relationship treaty in Brussels on Wednesday, before it is flown to London in a Royal Air Force plane, accompanied by EU and U.K. officials, and signed by Johnson in Downing Street in the afternoon.

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