Megxit might be getting more attention than Brexit this week (also some other things), but there’s actually some Brexit news happening: The United Kingdom just came one step closer to leaving the European Union at the end of January.
On Thursday, the UK House of Commons easily approved the legislation needed to codify the Brexit deal into UK law, voting 330 to 231. The bill will now go to the House of Lords, Parliament’s other chamber, where it will also be voted on, and officially become law later this month.
Which means the UK will be out of the EU, finally, by January 31, 2020.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson showed what a difference an 80-seat Conservative majority, which he won in last month’s elections, makes. Unlike Brexit votes past, complicated by close votes and lots of amendments and roadblocking from rebel lawmakers, this process has been drama-free.
Indeed, almost exactly a year ago, then-Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a historic and humiliating defeat on her Brexit deal. This time around, Johnson swiftly and decisively passed a revised version of her agreement. The House of Commons gave its initial approval to this legislation in late December and just returned from vacation on Tuesday, meaning everything got wrapped up in about three days.
Now the Brexit legislation goes to the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber, where it will face its next test.
While the House of Lords might take issue with parts of the Brexit legislation, it isn’t likely to derail Brexit. The chamber traditionally respects the elected majority, and Johnson and the Conservatives are doing exactly what they promised in their election manifesto. A spokesperson for the prime minister said the government wants to get this legislation through both houses of Parliament “as smoothly as possible.”
Instead, everyone is starting to look toward the next stage: the negotiations on the post-divorce EU-UK relationship. Those are expected to start on February 1, a day after the UK officially quits the bloc. EU leaders are very publicly casting doubt on Johnson’s ambitious timeline of getting everything sorted by the end of 2020.
So the Brexit chaos isn’t over, really, it’s just about to enter a new phase. But at least when it comes to the breakup, everything is, at last, moving forward as planned.
What to know about the Brexit bill
First, a quick recap: Johnson tweaked the Brexit deal in October, but couldn’t pass it through Parliament, as lawmakers rejected his supercharged timeline. He then had to ask the EU for an extension, making the new Brexit deadline January 31.
Johnson then called for elections, and enough opposition MPs agreed to allow him to do so. In December, he won a historic majority, which sealed the UK’s fate: The country would leave the EU at the start of 2020.
With this resounding majority, Johnson made some additional tweaks to his Brexit legislation that puts the deal into UK law. That included weakening protections for refugee children, removing some commitments on workers’ rights, and eliminating the option to extend the Brexit transition period past 2020, which is what sets up that ambitious 11-month timeline to strike an agreement on the future EU-UK partnership.
Still, the House of Commons gave this legislation initial approval in December, just before the Christmas holidays.
Lawmakers returned in the new year and finalized the remaining stages in three days. On Wednesday, opposition MPs introduced amendments. That included putting back some of the issues like workers’ rights, which they want to closely align with the EU. (Johnson has said the UK will address workers’ rights in separate legislation.)
MPs also tried to reintroduce the amendment that would have guaranteed unaccompanied refugee children the right to unite with family in UK after Brexit, but that was also defeated. Johnson has said it will remain government policy to reunite kids, but it doesn’t have to go in the Brexit legislation. (An amendment to get Big Ben to chime the moment the UK leaves the EU was, sadly, not selected for a vote.)
In the end, all of the opposition’s attempts to amend the Brexit bill were defeated. It was another reminder of what an empowered Conservative majority can do. That led to this latest vote in the House of Commons on Thursday, which was assured before it even happened.
The UK is set to leave the EU, but Brexit isn’t done
The House of Lords may pick apart sections of the legislation — particularly that provision on refugee children, which was initially championed by a lord.
These battles will be important, but they’re unlikely to sideline Brexit. The EU Parliament must also okay the Brexit plan, but that’s mostly a formality. Taken together, there is likely no stopping Brexit at this point. Mark the calendars — for real this time — for January 31.
The next phase, though, will be something.
After January 31, the EU and the UK will enter a standstill period. The UK will officially cease to be part of the EU and will lose any decision-making powers, but it will still follow all the EU rules. The transition ends in 2020, but it can be extended, once, until 2022, if more time is needed for negotiations on future relations. Johnson has said the UK doesn’t need it.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president who took over last year, seems to disagree. This week, she warned that it would be “basically impossible” to negotiate a future relationship and ratify it by year’s end.
That’s because this isn’t just about trade, though trade is a big one. The EU and UK have to talk about all the things: security, fishing, transport, and a whole lot more. There’s perhaps a chance of some side or interim deals. But a real, comprehensive deal? The EU really doesn’t think it’s possible.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said that the EU is “ready to do its best” when it came to reaching an agreement on the future relationship, but the EU is preparing for the reality that talks could fail. And, the EU said it would keep planning for the possibility that no deal would be reached by the end of 2020, which could again threaten serious economic disruption.
In reality, there’s flexibility here. Johnson could always change his mind and ask Parliament to amend the legislation to allow for the possibility of an extension to the transition period. It doesn’t mean he will, but perhaps he’s hoping once Brexit officially happens in January that the British public might not be as tuned in — especially since some of the parliamentary drama that dominated Brexit last year has ended.
But, for both the UK and Europe, the next stage of negotiations is going to be the hardest part of Brexit.