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Trick or Treaty? The Brexit Withdrawal Bill

At 8pm last night, the government published the legislation for Boris Johnson’s proposed Brexit deal. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) is 115 pages long and has an extra 126 pages of explanatory notes.

MPs have just 24 hours to digest this WAB before casting their first key votes on it later tonight.

The legislation is undoubtedly the biggest and most dramatic constitutional change to the UK’s status in generations.

The government expects Parliament to pass the bill at unprecedented break-neck speed: just three days to change Britain forever, with hardly any time to take a breath, let alone to take a breather and think:

  • Is this really in the country’s best interests?
  • Is this really what the country wants?
  • When precisely did the country vote for THIS?

I have prepared a summary of what the legislation says (with some assistance from a helpful Guardian article):

 RAPID RATIFICATION

Under UK law, international treaties – of which this is one – must be put before Parliament for at least 21 days in order to be ratified.

This is laid down in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (Crag) of 2010.

But this normal legal requirement is being shockingly set aside for the purpose of the WAB, to enable the legislation to be rushed through Parliament at dizzying speed to allow the 31 October Brexit deadline to be met.

 MAIN PURPOSE

The purpose of the WAB is to “implement, and make other provision in connection with, the agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU” over Brexit. In other words, it gives Johnson’s deal legal status.

 TRANSITION PERIOD

The transition period would begin on 1 November and end on 31 December 2020, during which time for all intents and purposes the UK would continue to enjoy EU membership benefits, albeit without any say in current or new EU laws during the transition, and still having to pay the EU membership fee.

Our MEPs would come home and have no further role in the European Parliament.

If the UK has not agreed a new free trade agreement with the EU during the transition period, then we crash out of the EU without a deal on 31 December next year.

Yes, crash out – with all the catastrophic consequences fully documented by the government’s Yellowhammer report, albeit with more time for the country to prepare for it.

Government ministers would have the power to extend the transition period for up to two more years with the approval of Parliament.

But the bill does not give MPs any power to call for the transition period to be extended.

So, if a no-deal cliff edge loomed from 1 January 2021, there is nothing Parliament could do to stop it.

 FUTURE RELATIONSHIP

MPs will be given some oversight of this and must first approve a “statement on objectives for the future relationship with the EU”.

It’s vague.

Nobody yet knows in advance what our relationship will be with the EU after the expiry of the transition period. It’s this that is giving many MPs a headache.

MPs with clear vision can see that the cliff-edge danger hasn’t been removed – it’s just been moved to a possible new date of 1 January 2021.

 CITIZENS’ RIGHTS

The bill lays out the rights of EU nationals, and others from EEA and Efta countries, and the Swiss living in the UK.

The one seemingly new provision is a new body called the Independent Monitoring Authority, or IMA, for EU nationals to lodge complaints about their treatment at the hands of the government.

 WORKERS’ RIGHTS

Johnson has included a key element in the WAB to protect workers’ rights, in an attempt to woo Labour “rebels” to back it.

This sets out a principle that rights enshrined in EU law, such as the working time directive, will still have effect in UK law.

But it’s the longer-term alliance with EU rights that is in doubt.

The WAB makes a vague reference to “non-regression” of rights – that workers’ rights after the end of the transition period will not be reduced.

But this woolly statement has not convinced Labour’s leadership nor trade unions. The WAB does not give any guarantee against regression of workers’ rights.

 NORTHERN IRELAND

The WAB sets out arrangements for Northern Ireland including the concession by Johnson that it would remain subject to the EU customs regime.

That’s a change to policy that no doubt won Johnson the deal, but it also lost him the support of the DUP, as it involves a customs union down the Irish Sea.

That’s something which previously Johnson said that no British Prime Minister would ever agree to allow.

The explanatory notes say the bill “provides arrangements that ensure that the UK (including Northern Ireland) does not remain in a customs union with the European Union”.

As The Guardian comments, ‘This might be officially true in law, if not completely in practice.’

 OUR DEBT TO THE EU

Bland legal language now covers what previously caused Brexiters to spit fury. The WAB states:

“Any sum that is required to be paid to the EU or an EU entity to meet any obligation that the United Kingdom has by virtue of the withdrawal agreement is to be charged on and paid out of the consolidated fund or, if the Treasury so decides, the national loans fund.”

 LEGAL CUT AND PASTE

The bill allows for EU law to be retained under UK law, as needed, even at the end of the transition period. But this is a fudge, and will allow the government to pick and choose which EU protections are retained, amended or discarded after the transition period.

 MY VERDICT

The government is trying to pull a fast one – literally.

The country did not vote for this, and Parliament won’t be given enough time to consider it.

It is spurious to invite ‘the people’ to have a say at the beginning of the process, but no say at the end, when the key decisions are being made that will dictate what kind of country Britain will be forever.

Leave voters did not vote for a specific version of Brexit. Brexiters say ‘Leave means Leave’. But Leave can mean anything.

Now we know what Leave means, the decision should be put back to us, ‘the people’, for a final say.

Bottom line: This is a trick, and if this treaty is passed, especially in haste, the country will spend the next 100 years in regret, wondering why we were allowed to be hoodwinked in this way.

 

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