Brexit bat­tle by law­mak­ers amid cus­toms chaos worry

Bill would con­vert 12,000 EU laws into Bri­tish statute in ’19.

Dayton Daily News - - NATION & WORLD - By Jill Law­less

LONDON — A frag­ile govern­ment, a leg­isla­tive mine­field and a jit­tery econ­omy are turn­ing up the ten­sion as Bri­tain tries to turn its vote to leave the Euro­pean Union into a re­al­ity.

Exit ne­go­ti­a­tions with the bloc are stalled on di­vorce terms, and on Tues­day Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May’s govern­ment bat­tled to push its cen­tral piece of Brexit leg­is­la­tion through a di­vided Par­lia­ment.

The Euro­pean Union (With­drawal) Bill is de­signed to pre­vent a le­gal vac­uum by con­vert­ing some 12,000 EU laws into Bri­tish statute on the day the U.K. leaves the bloc in March 2019.

But many law­mak­ers claim the bill gives the govern­ment too much power to amend leg­is­la­tion with­out par­lia­men­tary scru­tiny. And op­po­nents of Brexit — both from the op­po­si­tion and from May’s Con­ser­va­tive Party — will try to amend it to soften the terms of Bri­tain’s exit from the bloc.

The House of Com­mons be­gan eight days of de­bate on the bill Tues­day, and law­mak­ers have filed hun­dreds of pro­posed amend­ments — each one a chal­lenge for a mi­nor­ity govern­ment that re­lies on sup­port from a small North­ern Ire­land party to avoid de­feat on key votes.

Leg­is­la­tors re­viewed the bill in line-by-line de­tail Tues­day, start­ing with wran­gling over whether to spec­ify an ex­act time for Bri­tain’s de­par­ture from the EU. The govern­ment wants to set a time of 11 p.m. on March 29, 2019, but some pro-EU law­mak­ers said that de­gree of speci­ficity could elim­i­nate flex­i­bil­ity Bri­tain might need.

Labour Party Brexit spokesman Paul Blom­field said fix­ing a day in law was “a gim­mick” by “a prime min­is­ter so weak she is try­ing to tie her own hands be­hind her back.”

A group of pro-EU Con­ser­va­tives is threat­en­ing to de­feat the govern­ment un­less there are con­ces­sions to avoid a “hard Brexit” — that is, an exit with­out a deal on seam­less new trade re­la­tions that many busi­nesses fear will cause eco­nomic tur­moil.

The govern­ment has tried to mol­lify re­bel­lious law­mak­ers by promis­ing Par­lia­ment will get a vote on any Brexit deal agreed on be­tween Bri­tain and the bloc be­fore Bri­tain leaves in March 2019.

But Brexit Sec­re­tary David Davis said the vote will be a “take it or leave it” choice: If Par­lia­ment re­jects the deal, Bri­tain will crash out of the 28-na­tion bloc with­out an agree­ment.

Many busi­nesses see that as a worst-case sce­nario, as it would bring tar­iffs and red tape that could see trade with the bloc grind to a halt. A group of law­mak­ers warned Tues­day there could be cat­a­strophic con­se­quences if Bri­tain fails to put a new cus­toms sys­tem in place be­fore the U.K. leaves the EU.

Par­lia­ment’s Pub­lic Ac­counts Com­mit­tee said Brexit may lead to a five­fold in­crease in cus­toms dec­la­ra­tions. It said that could bring “huge dis­rup­tion” for busi­ness, with bor­der de­lays caus­ing “mas­sive back­ups” at the port of Dover and food rot­ting in trucks if the sys­tem doesn’t work prop­erly.

Bri­tain hopes to strike a free-trade deal with the EU, and wants a two-year tran­si­tion pe­riod after 2019 to ease into the new ar­range­ments. But ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween London and Brus­sels re­main dead­locked over terms of the U.K.’s with­drawal, in­clud­ing how much Bri­tain must pay to meet its fi­nan­cial com­mit­ments to the bloc and the sta­tus of cit­i­zens af­fected by Brexit.

EU chief ne­go­tia­tor Michel Barnier says there must be ma­jor progress in di­vorce talks be­fore the end of Novem­ber if EU lead­ers are to agree at a Dec. 14-15 sum­mit to move on to dis­cussing trade and fu­ture re­la­tions.

The rights of 3 mil­lion EU cit­i­zens in Bri­tain — and 1 mil­lion Bri­tons liv­ing else­where in the bloc — re­mains a stick­ing point. Bri­tain says EU na­tion­als will be able to stay and en­joy broadly the same rights as they do now.

But the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment’s top Brexit of­fi­cial has warned that the U.K.’s pro­pos­als fall far short of what’s needed.

Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt wrote in a let­ter to Davis — ob­tained by The As­so­ci­ated Press — that “un­der your pro­pos­als EU cit­i­zens will def­i­nitely no­tice a de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of their sta­tus as a re­sult of Brexit.”

Tues­day, the Bri­tish govern­ment bat­tled to push its cen­tral piece of Brexit leg­is­la­tion through a di­vided Par­lia­ment.

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