“Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.” Once said the great William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. If he were alive today, he would have been amazed at the pace of the unfolding political drama in the UK.
British people, political commentators and EU officials were bored to death because of the Brexit impasse in the last three years. Now they are out of breath following the power struggle between Westminster and Boris Johnson’s government seeking to pass the European Union Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) — a document of 110 pages — in 72 hours.
Given the fact that the WAB will affect the British people for many generations to come, opposition politicians and many in the public are very concerned about the lack of scrutiny the government intends the bill to receive. They argue in the past far less important bills took much longer in parliament to be debated and scrutinised.
The 110-page document will give legal effect to the withdrawal deal negotiated by Mr Johnson with the EU last week. It details exactly how parliament is expected to put the Brexit deal into UK law.
The debate in parliament is aiming to transfer the withdrawal bill from a political agreement about exiting the EU into British legislation relating to the divorce bill, the transitional period, the status of Northern Ireland and the rights of European citizens in Britain, and British citizens in Europe.
It is a complicated task, full of risks and challenges for Johnson. When Britain wanted to join the European Economic Community in the 1970s, there was a 120-vote majority, but after discussing all the legislation related to the entry of the European Economic Community, the agreement was passed by only eight votes.
NO-DEAL BREXIT STILL LOOMS: This is precisely what Boris Johnson fears. In the view of many of his opponents, when the withdrawal agreement is closely scrutinised and its internal impact on Northern Ireland, future relations with the EU, the rights of workers and consumers in the UK, when all is discussed, the limited support it has might even be reduced. In Johnson’s Brexit plan, the backstop, a controversial measure designed to prevent a return to physical checks on the Irish border was removed. Instead, the new Brexit plan draws a new customs border in the Irish Sea, as goods which could travel onwards to Ireland will have to pay a duty tax. It also will see the whole of the UK leave the EU customs union, meaning it could strike trade deals with other countries in the future. But putting that into British law is not easy or straightforward.
The WAB will also turn any agreed transition period into law, fulfil requirements on the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit, and allow the government to make “divorce payments” to the EU foreseen under the current deal.
The government is trying its utmost to drive the bill through in time for 31 October, and want the Commons stages completed by Thursday, by means of two midnight sittings. But opposition MPs — and some Tory rebels — demand more time for debate, because more time means more scrutiny and the ability to vote on amendments (changes or add-ons) to the main bill.
The most important amendment could be the Labour Party’s amendment demanding a softer Brexit and staying in the EU’s customs union, which would make free trade deals all but impossible, but which would remove the need for any customs duties or checks between the UK and the EU. Also, such an arrangement, if passed, would also eliminate the need for a new customs border in the Irish Sea between the UK and Northern Ireland.
A customs union proposal with the EU last April lost by only three votes. Downing Street aides have made it clear they will not swallow a customs union — the issue on which Mr Johnson quit Mrs May’s government — and suggest such an amendment would kill the WAB, as it would strip the agreement of its content, and force the government to renegotiate the deal again with the European Union.
Another amendment to the bill would be a second referendum. There are increasing numbers in the Commons supporting a confirmatory vote on any Brexit deal.
Given the time needed for proper discussion and potential amendments, it is no wonder the level of anger in parliament is high in the face of the limited time the government is proposing.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said Labour was outraged by the government’s attempt to push the bill through in such a short time.
“When I did the Health and Social Care Act, which was a major piece of legislation, it took three months,” the Labour MP told BBC Breakfast.
“In order for politicians to do their job properly, we do need to have time,” she added.
Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, is as angry as Thornberry.
“MPs had more time to debate the Wild Animals in Circuses Act (affecting 19 animals) than they will to decide the future of 65 million people. It’s hard to think of anything which better illustrates this Govt’s contempt for people, Parliament & democracy,” she said on Twitter.
The influential Labour MP Hilary Benn has flagging up his concerns around clause 30 of the bill, which MPs first saw Monday night, saying the prospect of a “no-deal” Brexit still looms.
“What happens if the government doesn’t propose an extension?” asked Benn, whose name was on the act that required Mr Johnson to request a three-month Brexit delay unless he can pass a deal or get MPs to approve a no-deal exit by 19 October.
The Scottish National Party MP Pete Wishart also condemned a lack of economic impact assessments of the deal ahead of the attempt to pass the legislation.
In response, the chancellor, Sajid Javid, said he does not intend to carry out an economic impact of it, because it is “self-evidently” in the UK’s interests to end uncertainty about Brexit.
And because the “devil is in the details,” David Lammy, the Labour MP, said “giving MPs so little time to scrutinise one of the most consequential pieces of legislation we’ll vote on is as transparent as it is cynical. Boris Johnson is scared of scrutiny because he knows the withdrawal agreement is a disaster compared to our current deal inside the EU.”
Anna Soubery, an independent MP, said: “Critical decisions that will determine our country’s future for generations to come will be rammed through parliament — all to save @BorisJohnson’s face and satisfy his false deadline. This is so wrong.”
If the deal survives the Commons, it will go to the House of Lords and this could be the real danger zone. With a large number of Remainer peers, the Lords can be expected to try to throw a spanner in the works with amendments, as well as backing a second referendum and customs union amendments if they come from the Commons. The question is whether, when it comes to the crunch, unelected peers would defy a majority in the Commons (and the referendum result) and try to block Brexit.
FIRST LONDON, THEN STRASBOURG
If the government cannot get the bill through parliament, the default legal position is for the UK to leave without a deal on 31 October. But that will change if the EU grants an extension.
Jean Claude-Juncker, president of the European Commission, could not hide his frustration. “In truth it has pained me to spend so much of this mandate (as president) dealing with Brexit when I have thought of nothing less than how this union could do better for its citizens... A waste of time and a waste of energy,” he said.
“I will always regret the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union but at least we can look at ourselves in the eye and say we have done all in our power to ensure that this departure is orderly.”
There was applause from MEPs as he added that MPs in Westminster had to first ratify the deal before MEPS did so: “First London, then Strasbourg,” meaning the European parliament would only be expected to vote on the deal after it is ratified by MPs in Westminster.
With the EU worried about more delays, the status of EU nationals in the UK has also been highlighted by Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit co-ordinator in the European Parliament. He argued: “Before we give consent, all problems faced by EU27 nationals in the UK need to be solved, including the threat of deportations for those who haven’t registered in time.”
Mr Johnson is trying to pressure lawmakers to pass the withdrawal agreement within 72 hours, arguing that this is the only way to heal the wounds of a divided nation. “I believe if we do pass this deal and the legislation that enables it, we can turn the page and allow this parliament and this country to begin to heal and unite,” he said.
But his assurances do not comfort everyone. Past historical experiences show that hasty passage of laws in Britain lead to more political problems. And Johnson’s opponents will tell him that for a proper political legacy he needs to deliver a slow-cooked Brexit, not a raw Brexit, poisonousness and toxic.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.