LONDON (AFP) — After years of angry arguments that toppled two governments, Britain’s parliament on Thursday will finally approve the terms of Brexit, clearing the divided country’s exit from the European Union on Jan. 31.
The House of Commons will rush through a final day of hearings and ratify Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s divorce deal with Brussels, drawing a line under an extraordinary period of political chaos.
For much of the time since the 2016 Brexit referendum, lawmakers have been deadlocked over how, when and even if Britain should leave its closest trading partners after nearly 50 years.
Some viewed Brexit with horror, fearing that it stripped them of their European identities and turned Britain into an insular, slightly smaller and somewhat less important nation.
Others embraced it with fervor, viewing it as a chance to “take back control” from unelected officials in Brussels and see Britain regain some of its past might.
Businesses and governments in Europe, puzzled with Britain’s struggles over what they viewed as a self-inflicted wound, hoped that Brexit could still somehow be undone.
But Johnson’s comprehensive victory in last month’s general election brought an abrupt end to the turmoil, giving his Conservatives a parliamentary majority with which to push Brexit through.
MPs gave their initial blessing to the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill before Christmas, and the government set aside just three days this week for scrutiny of the complex text.
But few MPs even bothered to turn up on Tuesday and Wednesday, with both sessions ending early, while the government easily saw off opposition attempts to amend the text.
The momentous day on which Johnson effectively gets his divorce deal to leave the EU sanctioned was all but ignored in Thursday’s media.
Instead, it became a footnote to Prince Harry and Meghan’s decision to quit royal frontline duties.
In a striking contrast to much of last year, when every Brexit vote risked bringing down the previous government and eventually did, Commons approval on Thursday is now a done deal.
We “may not win many votes in parliament just now, but we can win the moral argument,” Keir Starmer, a potential successor to Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said Thursday.
“Whatever (Johnson) says about the wider issues, he must know the government has got this wrong.”
The Brexit bill still must be passed by the unelected House of Lords and the European Parliament, but this is expected before Jan. 31.
All eyes now are on another major challenge: the negotiation of a new relationship between Britain and the remaining 27 EU nations, which form the world’s largest single market.
The Brexit deal covers separation issues such as EU citizens’ rights and Britain’s financial settlement, and sets out an 11-month transition period in which to agree to a wider partnership.
Brussels warns the deadline of Dec. 31 is extremely tight, and has given London the option to ask for more time.
But Johnson insists there will be no extension of the transition period, saying that Britain must be free of EU rules as soon as possible.
Before talks with Johnson on Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it would be “basically impossible” to agree everything within London’s timeframe.
“We will have to prioritize,” she said in a speech to the London School of Economics, warning of “tough talks ahead.”
In response, Johnson’s office indicated that it could accept a partial trade deal.
London did not want the EU’s longstanding policy that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” — intended to stop one side cherry-picking bits of a deal they like — to define the coming negotiations, a spokesman said.
“We are very clear we want to get on in terms of negotiating a deal,” he said.
© Agence France-Presse