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article imageLaw intended to smooth Brexit reaches key hurdle

By James PHEBY (AFP)     Dec 20, 2017 in Politics

Legislation intended to smooth Britain's exit from the European Union moves a step closer to becoming law on Wednesday, as ministers begin working out what they want from Brexit.

The House of Commons will hold its eighth and final day of detailed scrutiny of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which would formally end Britain's membership of the bloc and transfer EU rules into British law, and will vote on key amendments.

Prime Minister Theresa May, who suffered a humiliating defeat by pro-European members of her own Conservative party last week when MPs voted to ensure parliament has the final say on any divorce deal with Brussels, will also appear before a powerful parliamentary committee Wednesday to outline her Brexit plan.

But she looks set to avoid a second parliamentary rebellion over plans to enshrine Brexit day in law, by also agreeing to another amendment giving some flexibility to move the date -- March 29, 2019 -- if negotiations with the EU go down to the wire.

The so-called "committee stage" of scrutiny was a test for May's minority government, which relies on a small pro-Britain Northern Irish party to push through legislation.

The bill has two days of further debate by MPs in January, when the rebel amendment could be reviewed, before it goes to the unelected House of Lords for debate.

EU leaders last week agreed to open the second stage of Brexit talks, after approving an interim deal on Britain's financial settlement, expatriate rights and the Irish border.

But they are still unclear on what Britain wants from the future relationship, including the shape of any trade deal.

Cabinet ministers held their first detailed discussion on the long-term economic partnership at a meeting on Tuesday, although no negotiating position was finalised, with further talks expected in early January.

- Finance sector warning -

May's spokesman said Tuesday she called for "a deal which secures the best possible trading terms with the EU, enables the UK to set rules that are right for our situation and facilitates ambitious third-country trade deals".

He added the cabinet agreed on the goal.

However, ministers are divided over how closely to stick to European regulations after Brexit, with some favouring convergence to secure the best possible trading ties, and others calling for a new approach.

May will on Wednesday be grilled by the Liaison Committee, which is made up of the chairmen and chairwomen of parliamentary committees, with Brexit preparations dominating the agenda, according to chairwoman Sarah Wollaston, one of the Tory rebels.

"Given that this session follows such a significant EU Council meeting and recent events in Parliament, on this occasion we will start with a focus on Brexit negotiations and transitionary arrangements," she said.

May will also go head-to-head with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at the weekly Prime Minister's Questions session, where her Brexit strategy is again likely to come under the spotlight.

Brussels meanwhile has repeatedly warned Britain that it cannot expect to leave the EU's single market and customs union, and maintain all its benefits.

The EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said that any deal struck would inevitably result in Britain's banks and financial companies losing rights to trade across the bloc.

"There is no place" for giving Britain's financial services full access to the EU market, he told a number of newspapers, including Britain's The Guardian.

In a speech on Wednesday, Barnier also insisted that the Brexit transition period, during which the EU's rules will still apply to Britain as it quits, should last from when Britain leaves the bloc in March 2019 until the end of 2020, three months earlier than the two-year timeframe suggested by May.

Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, said that as long as Britain's goals remained vague, competing forces in May's government could keep together.

"But the real difficulties ahead lie when the British will ask for special system of regulatory alignment -- they won't get it," he said.

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