The historic legislation will repeal the act that in 1972 took the UK into the then European Economic Community while simultaneously preserving the massive pile of EU laws as Westminster statutes until such time as parliament decides what is to be kept, changed or thrown out.
It will be a debate almost certain to produce much more heat than light — and one that’s likely to be won by Theresa May’s government at the second reading with a majority
eerily close to that achieved by the then prime minister
Edward Heath in 1972: a mere eight … such was the
full-strength enthusiasm of the British when they set out on their European journey.
None of this, however, will take us further forward on the major problems thrown up by the Brexit vote, and the legitimate attempt by the British government to enact it. Still awaited are clear proposals that would help to square the wish in Dublin and London for a friction-free border with
the North with the UK’s determination to leave the EU’s single market and the customs union — a problem rightly highlighted by a former Northern Island secretary of state, Peter Hain, who warns that failure to get this right could de-stabilise the Good Friday settlement, already being tested by the current impasse at Stormont.
The UK-EU negotiation to resolve such pivotal questions was inevitably going to be exacting, not least because, firstly, the Commission sees Brexit as an existential threat to the project, and secondly because it will leave a very large hole in the EU’s budget: Net recipients will have to get less, or net contributors will have to pay more. This helps to explain the language allegedly heard recently from the EU’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, who it is claimed talked of teaching the British a “lesson” about the Single Market. He has pleaded not guilty, so perhaps it was M. Juncker, who, as the Greeks are all too aware, is known for putting mere electorates in their place?
What is needed now is a recognition by London that the lack of a coherent plan and the snail’s pace of the Brussels talks is creating a hazardous vacuum, along with the perception held by the Government and Britain’s other close trading partners that the UK — attempting to get the best deal for itself — is not greatly concerned about the consequences for those here or on the continent.
The Commission and the 27 member states it represents could help by accepting that Britain has made its decision (one that might have been different if they had given David Cameron reformed membership terms that had the slightest chance of success in the referendum), and that it’s in the best interests of all 28 states to reach as speedily as possible an agreed outline on both the terms of the divorce and the post-Brexit trading settlement. Might there be progress if the somewhat relaxed schedule of a one-week session in Brussels every month was ramped up to something resembling
full-time work? These people are paid enough!