British MPs debate Brexit deal amid legal row

The British Parliament will on Tuesday begin five days of debate on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, but the discussion risks being overshadowed by a furious row over the government’s legal advice.

May is facing opposition on all sides of the House of Commons to the withdrawal agreement she struck with the European Union last month, and it risks being rejected in the vote on December 11.

The Conservative leader will open the first day of the debate, insisting her deal is the only option for a smooth Brexit in March.

“This is the deal that delivers for the British people,” May will tell MPs.

“The British people want us to get on with a deal that honours the referendum and allows us to come together again as a country, whichever way we voted.”

However, the start of the debate will be delayed by a row over the government’s refusal to publish the full legal advice on the Brexit deal, despite a resolution to that effect passed by MPs last month.

The dispute, which could see a minister suspended from the Commons, is a reminder of how little control May’s fragile minority government has over MPs ahead of next week’s crucial vote.

No deal would be better

She has previously warned that rejecting her Brexit deal could see Britain leave the EU with no agreement at all — something economists warn risks a major recession.

May has also raised the prospect of a change of government that sees Brexit reversed.

The left-wing Labour party, which rejects the deal and has raised the possibility of a second referendum on Brexit, says it would likely trigger a confidence vote to bring down her government if May loses.

May, who has been constantly challenged by hardline eurosceptics in her own Conservative party, would also likely face a leadership challenge.

The 2016 referendum, in which 52% of Britons chose to leave the EU, was deeply divisive and there remain strong feelings on both sides.

Lawmakers are just as divided. Although a large majority voted to start the Brexit process, they cannot agree on how it should end.

Hardline Conservative Brexiteers say May’s compromise deal does not represent enough of a break with Brussels.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Northern Ireland party propping up May’s government, also objects to special provisions for the province.

In a heated parliamentary debate on Monday, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox admitted that the agreement had “unsatisfactory” elements but said it guaranteed a “peaceful and orderly” Brexit.

He conceded he could be sanctioned for refusing to publish the full legal advice, but said doing so would be “contrary to the public interest” by revealing state secrets.

Many of May’s critics want her to go back and renegotiate — some suggest she could do so immediately. Two days after the Brexit vote, she is due in Brussels for an EU summit.

Parliament in gridlock

Growing numbers of pro-European MPs, meanwhile, are pressing for a second referendum. On Monday they delivered petitions to Downing Street signed by one million people.

“It is the only thing you can really do if parliament is in gridlock,” former Conservative minister Justine Greening told AFP.

Their case received a boost on Tuesday when the European Court of Justice issued a legal opinion saying that “unilateral revocation of the notification of the intention to withdraw from the EU” was possible.

The EU Withdrawal Agreement covers Britain’s financial settlement, estimated at £39-billion ($49.8-billion), the rights of EU expatriates and plans for a post-Brexit transition period lasting to December 2020.

The transition is intended to give both sides time to strike a new trade and security relationship, as set out in an accompanying political declaration.

If this relationship is not settled by then, the withdrawal agreement provides a “backstop” arrangement that would keep Britain in an EU customs union, with Northern Ireland also following EU rules on regulation of goods.

May insists this is necessary to avoid border checks in Ireland, amid fears of any risk to the fragile peace on the island.

But opponents say this risks tying Britain to the EU for years to come, and with no say in the bloc’s rules, leaving it a “vassal state”.

© Agence France-Presse

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Alice Ritchie
Alice Ritchie
AFP journalist covering British politics. South Londoner.
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