Britain’s delayed and disputed Brexit bill has become law, removing the last UK obstacle to the country leaving the European Union in just over a week.
- Diplomats said a “hard” Brexit by the end of the year still could not be ruled out
- After Britain formally leaves the EU next Friday, it enters a transition period until the end of 2020 during which it will remain an EU member
- Mr Johnson insists he will not seek an extension of the transition period.
House of Commons Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans announced on Thursday (local time) that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill had received Royal assent from Queen Elizabeth II, the final formality in the measure’s legislative journey.
The Queen’s assent came hours after the bill completed its passage through Parliament by getting approval from the House of Lords.
The European Union’s Parliament also must approve the Brexit divorce deal before January 31 if Britain is to leave on time. Politicians in Brussels are due to vote on it next week.
It means the UK is finally leaving the EU more than three-and-a-half years after voters opted for Brexit in a June, 2016 referendum, and after many rounds of political wrangling.
“At times it felt like we would never cross the Brexit finish line, but we’ve done it,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
Don’t count your chickens
Wrapping up even a “bare bones” deal on the future relationship between the European Union and Britain will be fraught with complexity and, with so little time to get it done, a painful “hard” Brexit at year-end still cannot be ruled out, diplomats said.
A basic agreement would have to include a free trade pact, a deal on preserving a “level playing field” of rules and standards to guarantee fair competition, and a governance structure to expand the relationship later.
An anti-Brexit campaigner wears a hat with the EU stars and pins during a demonstration outside the European Parliament in Brussels, Thursday, January 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco) (AP: Francisco Seco)
After Britain formally leaves the EU next Friday, it enters a transition period until the end of 2020 during which it will remain an EU member in all but name while both sides try to hammer out a deal on their future relationship.
Mr Johnson insists he will not seek an extension of the transition period. That leaves a tight deadline to avoid a potentially damaging “no-deal” outcome at the end of the year.
An agreement would have to be struck by the middle of October to leave time needed to translate the treaty into the EU’s 23 official languages and the possible need for ratification in the bloc’s parliaments before year-end.
A senior diplomat said he expects little progress in negotiations between the European Commission and Britain in the months ahead, and there will be just a few weeks left after the Brussels summer break to get a deal across the line.
“Usually in the EU things don’t get moving until there is a real crisis,” the diplomat said on Thursday.
Diplomats said an agreement would have to include deals on aviation, transport and fisheries, a politically thorny issue — and one where London could have the upper hand in negotiations because, after Brexit, fishing boats from EU countries will no longer be able to operate in British waters as they do now.
Swiss model ruled out
They said other elements could be negotiated and added later because only a “bare bones” deal is possible in such a short time.
The EU does not want to replicate its arrangement with Switzerland, with which it has more than 100 bilateral agreements to cover various aspects of the relationship.
“The idea is to have one treaty by end-2020, which would also have a governance structure and an openness to add supplementary treaties,” an EU diplomat involved in the talks said.
The EU is worried that once out of the bloc, Britain may try to undercut EU firms by lowering labour or environmental standards or by subsidising certain industries.
To prevent that, the EU wants a non-regression clause in the new relationship treaty and a joint committee with London that would consider realignments of British rules if EU standards change.
“The more aligned Britain’s rules are with the EU’s, the better access it will have to the EU’s single market,” an EU official said.
If Britain were to lower its labour, tax, state aid or environmental standards to gain a competitive advantage over EU firms, the EU could revoke its easy access to its market by imposing tariffs, the diplomats said.
If the future relationship treaty only deals with purely EU competencies like trade or fisheries, it could be ratified by the European Parliament only, making the process faster and simpler.
But if it includes agreements on aviation, security, transport of mobility of citizens — areas of competence of EU member state governments — national parliaments would have to have a say, increasing the risk of delays and a “no deal”.