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Landmark Brexit bill set to clear parliamentary hurdle

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A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament’s Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May speaking during the weekly Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs) session in the House of Commons in central London on January 17, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / PRU AND AFP PHOTO / PAUL ELLIS / 

British MPs are set to give the green light Wednesday to a key Brexit bill whose turbulent passage through parliament has dealt damaging defeats to Prime Minister Theresa May, but it faces further opposition from the upper house.

The House of Commons is expected to vote to approve the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which would repeal the 1972 law which made Britain a member of the European Union and transfer four decades of EU rules onto the British statute books.

But one pro-EU MP warned that the largely europhile upper House of Lords was likely to insist on further changes when the bill moves there for scrutiny, while ministers still face a battle with the devolved Scottish and Welsh administrations.

During weeks of Commons debate, MPs tabled hundreds of amendments to the bill, many of them focused on its sweeping powers to both amend EU regulations as they are transferred into British law and to authorise any Brexit agreement agreed with the bloc.

Eleven members of May’s Conservative Party joined with opposition lawmakers last month to force a change ensuring that parliament will have a “meaningful vote” on the final withdrawal deal.

Fearful of another loss, the government conceded to give MPs the power to amend the date and time of Brexit — currently set out in the bill as 2300 GMT on March 29, 2019 — if talks with the EU appeared to overrun.

Veteran Conservative MP Kenneth Clarke, a strident europhile, said on Tuesday that he expected peers to make “an enormous number of changes to this bill” when it moved there next.

He said it was an “illusion” to believe they would allow the government to give itself such sweeping powers.

– ‘Hearts still open’ –
The Scottish and Welsh governments have also warned against what they describe as a “power grab” in the bill, which would see some powers in devolved areas of policymaking currently held in Brussels, taken back to London.

“As both the Scottish and Welsh governments have repeatedly said, the withdrawal bill must be amended to prevent any devolved powers being removed from the Scottish Parliament,” said Scottish minister Michael Russell.

May said discussions were continuing with Edinburgh and Cardiff, adding that an amendment on devolved powers would be tabled to the bill when it reached the House of Lords.

The main opposition Labour Party sought to continue to amend the bill on Wednesday, saying it is “fundamentally flawed”, but there was no indication that Conservative rebels would join them.

– ‘Hands remain outstretched’ –
Britain and the EU reached preliminary agreement before Christmas on the key separation issues — Britain’s financial settlement after Brexit, EU expatriate rights and the future of the Irish border.

The deal opened the door to the next phase of negotiations on future relations, including Britain’s request for a new trade agreement to replace its membership of the EU’s single market and customs union.

However, May has yet to set out precisely what she thinks Britain’s future relationship with the EU should look like, with some members of her cabinet wanting to stay as close as possible to the single market while others favour a clean break.

European Council President Donald Tusk on Tuesday said the EU’s “hearts were still open” if Britain decided to change its mind about leaving the bloc.

His comments followed a remark by leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage that he might be open to a second referendum in Britain on EU membership, to silence the critics.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker weighed in on Wednesday, saying he would welcome any British attempt to rejoin the EU after Brexit.

“Mr Tusk says our hands remain outstretched. If the British wish to find another way than Brexit, we are then ready to talk about it,” Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.


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