Britain’s new parliament on Friday gave its initial approval to a revised EU divorce deal that sets up a high-stakes clash with Brussels over the sides’ future ties.
The 358 to 234 vote paves the way for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to deliver on his winning general election promise to “get Brexit done” without further delays on January 31.
But it also pushes Britain and the remaining 27 European Union member states closer to another cliff edge that could end decades of unfettered trade when the post-Brexit transition period shuts at the end of 2020.
A snap poll last week gave Johnson’s pro-Brexit Conservatives a commanding majority of 365 seats in the 650-member lower House of Commons.
The main opposition Labour party — out of power since 2010 and riven by internal conflicts over Britain’s place in the world — was relegated to its worst defeat since 1935.
Johnson’s triumph dispelled any doubts over whether Britain would follow through on the results of its 2016 referendum and become the first nation to leave the bloc.
It has been a rocky 47-year sojourn that saw Brussels and London wrangle over currency controls and whose laws take precedence in specific fields.
The 2016 Brexit campaign was also dominated by debates over migrants and Britain’s right to control its frontiers.
“We are one step closer to getting Brexit done,” Johnson tweeted after the vote.
The House of Commons is expected to formally approve Johnson’s separation terms on January 9.
– ‘Rat hairs in paprika’ –
Yet Britain remains a politically divided country in which arguments over Europe rage on.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is stepping down in the wake of the election fiasco.
But he told parliament ahead of Friday’s vote that Johnson was setting the country on a “reckless direction” that handed power to big business and risked consumers’ health.
“We still believe it’s a terrible deal,” Corbyn said.
“Given the chance, they’ll slash food standards to match those in the United States, where what are called ‘acceptable levels’ of rat hairs in paprika and rat hairs in orange juice are allowed,” he said.
The secessionist Scottish National Party (SNP) also maintained its doom-laden vision of Brexit.
Its parliament chief Ian Blackford warned that Britain was now “blindly hurtling towards the cliff-edge” that would “cost thousands of jobs in Scotland”.
“This UK government cannot drag Scotland out of the European Union before gaining the legislative consent of the Scottish parliament,” he said.
The SNP’s independence drive is likely to remain a concern for Johnson’s government in the months to come.
– Another cliff edge –
Businesses and investors are mostly concerned by a series of small but potentially consequential changes into the official Withdrawal Agreement Bill that Johnson inserted after his election win.
Britain’s formal departure on January 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 backed by parliament on Friday.
“A Minister of the Crown may not agree… to an extension of the implementation period,” the bill now says.
– ‘Level playing field’ –
Johnson’s change puts psychological pressure on European officials to back off from some of their stiffer demands and seek a limited deal.
Yet this could have heavy costs for Britain.
Brussels insists that frictionless access to the EU single market must come at the expense of Britain’s acceptance of common rules on issues such as worker rights and environmental standards.
“@Boris Johnson A level playing field remains a must for any future relationship,” European Council President Charles Michel tweeted after the vote.
Britain wants as much divergence as possible so that it can have greater freedom to strike its own trade deals with countries such as the United States.
Failure to find common ground could see UK manufacturers in sensitive industries such as the auto and aviation sectors face high EU tariffs that make Britain uncompetitive and potentially cost jobs