(CN) – In a historic change in direction, the United Kingdom began its shift away from Europe on Friday as the Conservative-dominated House of Commons voted in favor of a deal that spells out the terms of the U.K.'s divorce from the European Union.
After months of parliamentary gridlock caused by disagreement over Brexit, the House of Commons is now solidly in favor of withdrawing from the EU after Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Tories won an 80-seat majority in Dec. 12 elections.
On Friday, the House voted 358-234 in favor of pushing ahead with a crucial bill that sets out of the terms of the U.K.'s departure from the EU.
"Now is the time to act together as one re-invigorated nation, one United Kingdom, filled with renewed confidence in our national destiny and determined at last to take advantage of the opportunities that now lie before us,” Johnson said in presenting his deal.
The legislation still has a few procedural steps, but it vitally puts into motion the U.K.'s exit from the EU on Jan. 31. The deal needs to be approved by the European Parliament too, but it is not expected to block it.
To the dismay of his political opponents, the deal Johnson presented to Parliament on Friday appeared to confirm their fears that the Conservative prime minister intends to water down regulations on the environment, workers' rights and food standards once the U.K. is out of the EU.
The new deal eliminates references to aligning worker' rights to EU laws and it also states U.K. courts may review EU laws, which could include for example rules on food standards and digital privacy.
This revamped deal also sidelines Parliament during upcoming negotiations with the EU on a trade deal and allows Johnson to cut off trade talks with the EU at the end of 2020 even if a trade deal hasn't been reached. Critics say it will be nearly impossible to craft a trade deal in one year and that Johnson's true aim is to see the U.K. not align itself with the EU and pursue new trade deals with countries where regulations are not as stringent as those in the EU, particularly with the United States.
These changes to a previous deal Johnson struck with the EU in October were attacked by Labour, the main opposition party. But after losing 42 seats in the recent election, Labour is powerless to stop Johnson and his Brexit plans.
"This deal will be used as a battering ram to drive us down the path of yet more deregulation and towards a toxic deal with [U.S. President] Donald Trump,” Labour leader Jeremy Coryn said during debate on the bill.
"This deal is the reckless road map for the direction the prime minister is determined to take our country,” Corbyn said.
Corbyn accused Johnson of campaigning before the election on promises to protect workers' rights and then doing the opposite once he had won.
"We are about to strike out on a new race to the bottom on a deal with the United States,” he said.
Johnson, obviously, sees it very differently.
Johnson argues that leaving the EU will allow the U.K. to do new trade deals around the world and make the U.K. wealthier. He argues that the U.K. needs to be able to craft its own standards, which he says can be better than the EU's. Experts, though, say the EU's standards in a range of areas – among them the environment, food, workers' rights, human rights and digital privacy – are among the best.
In Parliament, Johnson said the U.K. was embarking on a “great new national project” and reclaiming its borders, laws, trade and institutions.
He said the U.K.'s exit from the EU will restore “our great institutions to their rightful place,” making the House of Commons the only body making laws and British courts the “sole arbiters” of laws.
"And above all,” he said Brexit would make “the sovereign British people masters of their own fate, controlling their own borders, laws, money and trade.”
He said the U.K. would able to take control of immigration by allowing skilled workers into the country while also curbing “unskilled immigration.” Many Brits voted for Brexit because they resent the influx of EU nationals, particularly workers from Eastern Europe, who they see as undercutting British workers.
"We will be able to sign free-trade agreements with the booming markets of the world, a power no British government has had for the last 46 years,” Johnson said, referring to when the U.K. entered the European Economic Community, the precursor to the EU.
He said the U.K. will now be able to “cast off” the EU's agricultural policies which have “frustrated and overburdened our farmers” and “release our fishermen from the tangled mess of arcane quota systems.”
In truth, economists warn that the U.K. will suffer economically unless it keeps close ties with the EU, its biggest trading partner, and remains aligned with EU regulations and laws. In the next round of negotiations on a trade deal, the EU is insisting that the U.K. must abide by EU rules to ensure “a level playing field.”
The EU is seeking to make sure that the U.K. is not allowed to trade without restriction with EU countries while at the same time no longer paying into the EU budget and not abiding by EU rules and laws.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)