Brexit: A long unwinding begins

Repeal Bill marks only a proportion of the legislative battles to come as UK leaves the EU

British Brexit secretary David Davis, who has made an appeal for MPs to ‘work together’ on the UK’s exit from the EU. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

British Brexit secretary David Davis, who has made an appeal for MPs to ‘work together’ on the UK’s exit from the EU. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

 

The British government’s Repeal Bill, published yesterday, proposes to end its European Union membership and the supremacy of EU law after negotiations on the United Kingdom’s exit are completed in 2019. The enormous complexity of disentangling the country’s 44 years of interdependence with the EU is brought home by this clever but politically perilous piece of legislation.

An estimated 25,000 legal instruments sharing regulatory sovereignty over that time will be gradually reversed by up to 1,000 new bills and statutory instruments restoring British legal control. The resulting legislative burden will dominate parliamentary business in Westminster for years. The measure allows the government determine its repeal priorities while providing legal continuity during the transition. That will make it systematically vulnerable to defeat because of the small majority after the general election. Opposition parties will seek to amend resulting legislation disputing those priorities and imposing new conditions on various issues.

Publication of the Repeal Bill therefore highlights how weak and ill-prepared the British government is for the exit negotiations which get properly under way next week. The governing Conservatives remain divided on what exactly Brexit involves, notably on withdrawing from the single market, the customs union and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Cross-party coalitions against any of these are being prepared, making formulation of stable negotiating positions impossible for the government. That reduces trust and confidence in Brussels. From the Irish point of view it prolongs the endemic uncertainty brought on by Brexit.

Complex though the Repeal Bill is, it represents only a proportion of the legislative battles to come in this volatile parliament. Opposition and rebel MPs will have opportunities to object to and amend forthcoming bills. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also seek to exert influence over the Brexit process. That all makes this an historic tipping point in British politics.

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