Jan 22, 2020
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U.K. Takes a Major Step Toward Brexit

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LONDON — Brexit legislation once reduced Britain’s Parliament to recriminations and paralysis. But on Wednesday a bill that paves the way for the country’s departure from the European Union next week completed its final big parliamentary stage with a noticeable absence of the fuss and drama of recent years.

The measure is expected to be enacted into law as soon as Thursday, after the House of Commons on Wednesday followed the government’s request and rejected a series of amendments added by the unelected second chamber, the House of Lords.

That more or less completed the legislative process in Britain, although the European Parliament will vote on the withdrawal agreement next week before Brexit happens formally on Jan 31. That vote is expected to pass with ease.

Among the five amendments rejected was one designed to protect the rights of refugee children to join their families in Britain after Brexit.

The amendment was proposed by Alfred Dubs, a member of the House of Lords who was a child refugee from the Nazis. It would have required the government to seek agreement with the European Union to ensure that unaccompanied children could continue to come to Britain to join a relative.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government said that it aimed to do so anyway, but that it did not want a formal requirement in the Brexit bill.

The government’s move was condemned by Ruth Tanner, the head of humanitarian campaigns for Oxfam, who said it was “a very sad start to the future of Britain outside the European Union, that members of Parliament have rejected the amendment to protect the rights of lone child refugees coming to the U.K. from Europe.”

But having won the December general election with an 80-seat majority, Mr. Johnson has virtually complete control of Parliament and no longer has to worry about the sort of defeats he suffered routinely last year.

After the votes in the House of Commons on Wednesday, the bill returned to the House of Lords, though by convention the upper house ultimately gives way to the elected chamber of Parliament.

Nonetheless, analysts warn that Britain’s official departure from the European Union is the beginning of a new, tougher phase of negotiations as British and European representatives prepare to try to thrash out a trade deal in a matter of months.

The signs do not look promising, with the two sides setting out tough positions ahead of talks that Britain insists must be concluded by the end of the year. Britain has said that it will obey European rules during that time as part of a transition period.

Business leaders in several sectors have reacted with alarm to warnings from the chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, that Britain will ultimately not align with European Union rules. They worry that the divergence might result in new barriers to trade that could harm major industries like autos and pharmaceuticals.

The European Union has not yet agreed on a mandate for the trade talks with Britain. One central demand will be for a “level playing field” designed to ensure that Britain does not undercut its continental neighbors by adopting weaker environmental or labor standards, or by offering state subsidies to businesses.

But Mr. Johnson argues that the freedom to diverge from European rules is one of the benefits of Brexit. Otherwise, he says, Britain would effectively have rules made for it by the bloc, defeating the whole purpose of the withdrawal.

It is unclear whether Britain will ultimately adopt European rules for some sectors voluntarily and, if so, whether the two sides can agree on what would happen if the British decided at a later point to diverge.

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