Britain has moved a significant step closer to leaving the European Union after parliamentarians voted overwhelmingly Friday to back the Brexit deal struck by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Members of Parliament voted 358 to 234 to approve legislation implementing the agreement, which clears the way for Britain to formally leave the EU on Jan. 31. The result was hardly surprising given the resounding victory by Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives in last week’s election. But it marked a profound shift in attitudes about Brexit among MPs and across the country. And it gave Mr. Johnson a free hand to begin shaping Britain’s future outside the EU.
The last time he tried to win support for the deal in the House of Commons, in October, the Tories didn’t hold a majority of seats, and a group of MPs frustrated the Prime Minister at every step. His predecessor, Theresa May, saw her Brexit deal go down to defeat three times. To break the impasse, Mr. Johnson triggered a snap election and correctly read the mood of voters, who were fed up with Brexit after more than three years of delay.
Now with a majority of more than 80 seats, Mr. Johnson is in a strong position to pursue the kind of Brexit he wants and to start trying to heal the deep divisions over the issue. “This is the time when we move on and discard the old labels of leave and remain,” he told the House of Commons. Passage of the legislation means “Brexit will be done. It will be over. The sorry story of the last 3½ years will be at an end and we will be able to move forward.” In an indication of just how quickly the mood has changed in Parliament, six Labour Party MPs defied their outgoing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and voted to approve the Brexit deal Friday, while another 32 abstained.
How the country moves forward remains unclear. Mr. Johnson has to begin the complicated process of negotiating trade deals around the world, something the United Kingdom hasn’t done in decades as a member of the EU. The first task will be reaching an agreement with the EU, Britain’s largest trading partner.
The withdrawal agreement includes a transition period that will run until the end of 2020. During that time the U.K. will remain inside the EU’s single market and customs union, which allow for the free movement of people, goods and services. Mr. Johnson has ruled out any extension to the transition, leaving him just 11 months to negotiate a deal. On Friday, he defended his decision and argued that the EU only responds to hard deadlines. “There would be nothing more dangerous for the new future that we want to build than allowing the permanent possibility of extending the implementation period in a torture that came to resemble Lucy snatching away Charlie Brown’s football,” he told MPs.
But opposition MPs called the move reckless and noted that it had raised concerns among many businesses. "If he fails [to reach a deal], the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit comes in just 12 months’ time,” said Labour MP Hilary Benn.
Aside from trade, Mr. Johnson’s government will also have to address a host of other post-Brexit issues. Britain needs a new immigration system, a replacement for the EU’s common agriculture policy and a range of regulatory bodies covering everything from air safety to chemical production, all of which are currently handled by Brussels. Security matters loom large, and British police could soon lose access to vital data sharing and European arrest warrants, which have been effective tools in tracking down and returning terrorism suspects. “The loss of the European arrest warrant will be one of the most significant matters in terms of security,” said Catherine Barnard, a professor of EU law at the University of Cambridge. She added that negotiating access won’t be easy and will take time. “You can’t just add it to a trade deal,” she said.
There are also challenges in Northern Ireland and the question of how the withdrawal agreement will affect the province’s economy. Under the deal, Northern Ireland will remain largely aligned with EU regulations to prevent a hard border with Ireland. But the rest of the U.K. won’t be aligned with EU rules, meaning there will have to be some kind of checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland. Mr. Johnson has insisted the checks will be minimal, but business groups and every political party in Northern Ireland have disagreed and argued the deal will damage the economy. "The concerns we have have been dismissed by those of you that won’t ever have to live with the results of these actions,” said Claire Hanna, an MP for Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party.
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