On Wednesday (1 February), the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill was backed by a majority of 384 MPs in the House of Commons.  This means that there isn’t any going back now and that the government has the authority to trigger the Brexit negotiations with the European Union.  Not just yet, though. There are a few more stages to go through, and a few amendments to be made before the bill reaches the House of Lords. 

On Thursday, the government published its White Paper after pressure from MPs who had demanded details of Theresa May’s strategy.

The trials and tribulations of the European Union Bill (or Brexit bill) 

In order to become law, the Brexit Bill has to pass certain stages: from the House of Commons, to the House of Lords, then both houses’ amendments will be deliberated, before the bill receives Royal Assent by the Queen as a formality. 

On 26 January, Theresa May published a one-page Brexit bill of around 132 words which would “confer power on the prime minister to notify, under article 50(2) of the treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.” On 31 January and 1 February, the Brexit bill passed through the House of Commons where MPs debated and agreed in their majority to send it to its next stage. After Theresa May’s publication of her government’s policy position on Brexit on Thursday, the bill will be scrutinised or revised by MPs in the Commons on the 6 and 7 February, and on the 8 February, MPs will have another chance to debate and a final vote on the bill. Then it will be sent to the House of Lords on 20 February. If there are more amendments to the bill, it will go back to the Commons in a “ping-pong” fashion until it is agreed. Then, finally, the Queen will confer her royal assent and it will become law.  After this point, Theresa May will be able to trigger Article 50 and begin the two-year negotiations with the EU. This could be any time before her desired deadline which is 31 March. 

White paper

A White paper is a government policy paper which includes a proposal for a future law. This enables all interested parties to discuss and amend the bill before it’s presented to Parliament. 

The White paper published by the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, focused, first and foremost, on the UK’s desire to see the EU being successful. This was important because Theresa May was clearly separating herself from President Trump’s controversial statements relating to the EU’s (im)possible future. The press release for the document was appropriately titled: “A 'new, positive and constructive' partnership with the European Union.” It stressed “the importance of delivering a smooth, mutually beneficial exit, avoiding a disruptive cliff-edge.” If someone deleted the word “exit” or was reading this text without being aware of the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU, they would have assumed that it was celebrating the UK’s place within the EU, instead of announcing its divorce. 

Davis also reported that the government will publish another white paper outlining plans for a great repeal bill.  The great repeal bill is the Brexit law that will convert existing EU laws into British law after the UK officially leaves the EU. After transposing EU laws into British law, MPs will be able to scrutinise, change or repeal any aspects of EU law.

Contents of the White paper

The White paper, which is available on the government’s website, is a 77-page document. 

Its contents outline the 12 principles that the PM has referred to before. Among them, there are important issues such as: “taking control of our own laws,” “strengthening the Union,” “controlling immigration,” “securing the rights for EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU,” “protecting workers’ rights,” “ensuring free trade with European markets,” and “securing new trade agreements with other countries.”

In regards to EU nationals living in the UK, the paper said that the UK will secure their status and provide certainty. Similarly, it will guarantee the status of UK nationals living in the EU. The government explained that this is part of a smooth and orderly Brexit procedure which will take into consideration the demands of relevant organisations and individuals. But the paper stated that it had “not proven possible” to agree on the future rights of EU nationals or British expats with the EU. So, no guarantees yet.

The government wants to ensure that the people of the UK will get more power, implying that the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the Northern Ireland assembly, will get control over powers that are currently under the control of Brussels, without specifying what exactly these will be. 

Control of immigration: MPs will vote on immigration rules. The paper also says that the government will try and understand the impact of immigration on the economy and the labour market and how possible changes will affect different parts of the country. 

No deal being better than a bad deal: The paper emphasises that “the Government is clear that no deal for the UK is better than a bad deal for the UK. In any eventuality we will ensure that our economic and other functions can continue, including by passing legislation as necessary to mitigate the effects of failing to reach a deal.” This means that May will have a plan B if things don’t work out. 

Customs Union: The UK reiterates its point that it won’t be a member of the customs union, but will seek a new customs arrangement with the EU: “It is in the interests of both the UK and the EU to have a mutually beneficial customs arrangement to ensure goods trade between the UK and EU can continue as much as possible as it does now. This will form a key part of our ambition for a new strategic partnership with the EU.”

Single market: the government will secure “the freest and most frictionless trade possible in goods and services” outside the single market with “an ambitious and comprehensive free trade agreement.” Let’s hope this comes true.

MPs will discuss the bill in detail in the coming week when it reaches the committee stage in the House of Commons.