LONDON – Britain moved a step closer to leaving the European Union on Tuesday when Prime Minister Boris Johnson brought his Brexit deal back to Parliament, with MPs finally set to approve it after years of division and delay.
The House of Commons began three days of debate on legislation to enshrine the divorce terms in U.K. law, paving the way for Britain to end half a century of EU integration on Jan. 31.
For more than three years, MPs have been locked in acrimonious battles over how, when and even if the 2016 referendum vote for Brexit should be implemented.
But Johnson’s decisive victory in last month’s general election brought an end to the uncertainty that had left previous governments powerless and dampened economic growth.
With a majority of MPs elected on his vow to “Get Brexit Done,” he is expected to get his bill through the Commons this week with ease, and then the unelected House of Lords in the days ahead.
The European Parliament must also ratify the deal before exit day but this is widely viewed as a formality, making Britain’s departure at the end of the month a foregone conclusion.
Opening the debate, Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay said the Withdrawal Agreement Bill “delivers on the overwhelming mandate given to us by the British people to get Brexit done by the end of January.”
Attention is now turning to the next phase of Brexit, in which London will seek to agree a new economic partnership with the EU, its largest trading partner.
The two sides have agreed an 11-month transition phase in which to do this, lasting until Dec. 31, with their ties remaining the same in practice in that time.
Many in the EU believe this time-frame is too tight but London has insisted it will not seek an extension.
British officials said Johnson will emphasize this point in his first meeting with Ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the European Commission, in London on Wednesday.
The EU does not yet have a formal mandate to begin trade talks, as Britain has not left the bloc, but both sides are keen to begin preparations for the negotiations.
Failure to reach a trade deal before the end of the transition period could result in massive disruption and economic damage on both sides of the Channel.
Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said von der Leyen would discuss with Johnson how “we can come out with a positive agreement at the end of the year.
Johnson is so determined that there should be no extension to the transition phase that he has enshrined the Dec. 31, 2020 date in the Brexit bill.
British opposition MPs condemned the move, and Green MP Caroline Lucas warned Tuesday that it would “tie the hands of the government in such an unnecessary way.
But addressing a nearly empty Commons chamber, Barclay insisted: “With absolute clarity on the timetable, we are working to, the U.K. and the EU will be able to get on with it.”
Johnson, a former London mayor who led the Brexit campaign in the referendum, is keen to move on from EU matters and his government has implemented an unofficial ban on the word “Brexit” starting next month.
His finance minister, Sajid Javid, also announced on Tuesday he would hold a new post-Brexit budget vote on March 11, to “seize the opportunities that come from getting Brexit done.
The Brexit deal covers Britain’s financial liabilities, protections for around 3.5 million EU citizens living in Britain after Brexit, the transition period and new trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.
The main opposition Labour party tabled numerous amendments to the bill, but has conceded it does not have the numbers to get them through.
It is also distracted by the start on Tuesday of a leadership campaign to replace Jeremy Corbyn, who quit after a disastrous result in the Dec. 12 election.