Britain's new parliament votes on Johnson's Brexit deal

December 20, 2019
A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at the opening of the Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement)
A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at the opening of the Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) "Brexit" Bill in the House of Commons in London on Friday. — AFP

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Britain's newly-elected parliament to bury years of wrangling over Brexit by voting Friday for his EU divorce deal.

The lower House of Commons is all but certain to give its initial approval to the agreement, paving the way for Johnson to deliver on his winning general election pledge to "get Brexit done" by Jan. 31.

But it will also push London and Brussels closer to another cliff edge on unfettered trade when the transition period shuts at the end of 2020.

A snap election last week gave Johnson's pro-Brexit Conservatives a thumping majority in parliament, largely at the expense of the main opposition Labour party led by the Brexit-neutral Jeremy Corbyn.

It dispelled doubts over whether Britain would indeed become the first nation to leave the European Union, following the 2016 referendum vote to quit the bloc.

"Now is the time to act together as one reinvigorated 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 told MPs.

"It will be done. It will be over. The sorry story of the last three and a half years will be at an end and we will be able to move forward."

The withdrawal agreement bill was facing its second reading on Friday.

A final vote on Johnson's separation terms will come when lawmakers return from their Christmas break early next month.

However, there was little Christmas cheer on the opposition benches.

Corbyn, who is set to step down after last week's electoral drubbing, insisted: "We still believe it's a terrible deal."

"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 Donald Trump that will sell out our National Health Service," he said, reviving an election campaign line of attack.

He raised the prospect of rat hairs in paprika and maggots in orange juice in a trade deal with Washington.

Meanwhile Ian Blackford, the secessionist Scottish National Party's leader in the Commons, maintained his doom-laden vision of Brexit.

He forecast it would leave people poorer, with thousands of job losses, "sell out our food and drink sector and harm people's livelihoods".

Former culture secretary Maria Miller said viewers might think they were watching a replay "repeating the same arguments".

Johnson has introduced a series of small but potentially consequential changes into the official Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

Britain's formal departure on Jan. 31 is due to be followed by an 11-month transition period during which things are to stay pretty much as now.

London and Brussels are supposed to use the time to negotiate a comprehensive new agreement covering everything from trade to security and data protection.

EU officials warn that such deals usually take years to hammer out.

But Johnson ruled out the possibility of asking for a deadline extension in the version of the bill before parliament on Friday.

"A Minister of the Crown may not agree... to an extension of the implementation period," the bill now says.

It puts psychological pressure on European officials to back off some of their stiffer demands on London and seek a limited deal that leaves some big issues unresolved.

Welsh nationalist MP Jonathan Edwards told Johnson he had "boxed himself into a corner" by ruling out an extension.

But the prime minister said the lesson of Brexit talks thus far — the departure date was delayed twice from March 29 — was that a firm deadline "strengthens our negotiating position".

"Drift and dither mean more acrimony and anguish," Johnson argued.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Tuesday that the bloc "will do the maximum" to meet the end-of-2020 deadline. — AFP

December 20, 2019
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