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UK Brexit position is more uncertain than ever

© Ben Stansall, AFP | File photo of Big Ben, London, UK.

Text by Tom WHEELDON

Latest update : 2017-09-11

The UK Parliament will start debating on Thursday a bill clearing the way for ‘hard Brexit’, with the vote on Monday. But with a government majority of just one, and MPs bitterly divided, the outcome looks foggy.

The legislation – spun as the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ by Theresa May’s Conservative government – would transfer EU law into British law, so that the UK parliament can repeal European legislation as it sees fit after London leaves the bloc.

This would clear the way for ‘hard Brexit’, the government’s policy of leaving the single market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, as opposed to ‘soft Brexit’ – staying in the single market or customs union, which would keep Britain under EU regulations.

'Country must come before party'

But May has a Commons majority of just one, while the opposition Labour Party has said it will vote against the bill unless it is amended to get rid of the ‘Henry VIII powers’ it proposes to use. These powers were created in 1539 to allow the monarch to proclaim laws without consulting parliament, and have rarely been used since the authoritarian Tudor king’s reign. The government wants to use them to change EU regulations without parliamentary oversight.

Labour’s policy is now to delay ‘hard Brexit’ for a “transitional period” after Britain leaves. But the party is divided. Its leader Jeremy Corbyn is widely understood to be a Eurosceptic, and most voters in Labour’s electoral base in northern England voted to leave the EU. However, many of the young voters behind Labour’s surge in the 2017 election are pro-European. Meanwhile, deputy Labour leader Tom Watson has proposed staying in the single market as a “permanent outcome”.

On the other side of the Commons, numerous backbench Tory MPs oppose Britain leaving the single market. Anna Soubry, the most vociferous such MP, has said that “country must come before party”, railing against a ‘hard Brexit’ that would "destroy the lives and livelihoods" of her constituents.

'The British attitude is itself not clear'

“After the election, a disastrous result for May, the pressure for a softer Brexit has grown,” said Quentin Peel, expert on UK and European politics at Chatham House think-tank in London, in an interview with FRANCE 24. However, he says, “as it has grown, so has the resistance grown on the hardline Brexit front".

"Many within the government recognise the dangers of an economically damaging ‘cliff edge’ Brexit that would be very damaging for business, the City of London, and would aggravate problems in Ireland. Business is more and more anxious.”

On the other hand, Peel continued, there are many “hardline Brexiters” within the British government and parliament who are “adamant that any halfway house” – that is to say, ‘soft Brexit’ – “would be unacceptable”.

“There is no single British view. One of the reasons for slow progress in negotiations is that the British attitude is itself not clear. There are many different constituencies trying to have their say.”

In light of that, as parliament debates and vote on the ‘Great Repeal Bill’, it seems the only certainty about Brexit is continued uncertainty.

Date created : 2017-09-06

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