UK's Johnson seeks to rule out Brexit trade pact delay
LONDON – Buoyed by a big new Conservative majority in Parliament, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson toughened his Brexit stance on Tuesday, ruling out any extension of an end-of-2020 deadline to strike a trade deal with the European Union.
As lawmakers assembled for the first sitting of Parliament since Johnson's election victory last week, Downing Street said the government would insert a clause into its Withdrawal Agreement Bill — which ratifies the country's departure from the EU — to rule out extending Britain's trade negotiations with the bloc beyond next year. That could mean Britain leaving without a deal on trade terms at the start of 2021, a prospect that alarms many U.K. businesses.
The pound plunged on the news, falling by 1.5% to just over $1.31.
Johnson’s Conservatives won an 80-strong majority in Parliament in last week’s general election — the most decisive Tory victory since the 1980s — as voters in formerly Labour-backing areas rallied to Johnson's promise to “get Brexit done.”
The majority gives Johnson the ability to overcome opposition to his Brexit plans and implement his legislative agenda — unlike Conservative predecessor Theresa May, who led a minority administration and failed to win lawmakers' backing for her Brexit blueprint.
“This Parliament is not going to waste the time of the nation in deadlock and division and delay," Johnson told lawmakers as Parliament reconvened after the election.
The new session opened with a ritual mix of ceremony and political heckling. The 650 lawmakers were summoned to Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords, by an official known as Black Rod to hear a message from Queen Elizabeth II, before returning to the Commons.
The 365 Conservative legislators overflowed the benches allotted for them on one side of the Commons chamber. There was more room on the Labour Party side; the opposition party has 203 seats.
Once all lawmakers — including 140 new arrivals — have been sworn in, the real business will get underway Thursday, when the government announces it legislative plans for the next year in a speech delivered by the queen.
The Brexit bill is due to get its first vote in the House of Commons on Friday. The divorce bill will see the U.K. leave the 28-nation bloc on Jan. 31 and enter a transition period until the end of 2020 while a new trade deal with the EU is being negotiated. During the transition period, Britain will effectively remain a member of the EU, though without voting rights.
The withdrawal agreement allows for the transition to be extended until the end of 2022. Johnson has said repeatedly he won’t use the extra time, although trade experts say striking a new deal in only 11 months will be challenging.
Inserting a legal clause into domestic law ruling out a trade extension would underscore Johnson’s commitment to leave the EU in full by the end of next year, though it wouldn't prevent his government from changing its mind later.
Opposition politicians said the move would cause more uncertainty for businesses, who are still unsure what Britain’s trade relationship with the EU will be, three-and-a-half years after the U.K. voted to leave the bloc.
“This Tory government's reckless approach to Brexit will send the country straight off the no-deal cliff,” acting Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said.
European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said that reaching a comprehensive agreement in such a short time would be “very problematic.”
“We’ll need now to see what exactly can be achieved during that time period,” he told reporters at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. “This indeed provides for a very rigid time frame, which reflects that certain things will be out of reach.”
Johnson's move was as much about sending a message to Brexit-backing voters in the U.K. as it was about standing firm with the EU.
Sam Lowe of the Center for European Reform think tank said Johnson likely believed that a “firm deadline” would help speed up trade talks with the EU. But he told the BBC that the British government “could easily introduce a later bill saying ‘actually we could extend it.’”
“It’s a firmer deadline, but of course there is still some flexibility,” Lowe said.
Johnson's determination to push Brexit through has set him on a collision course with Scotland's pro-independence administration.
Unlike the U.K. as a whole, Scotland voted to remain in the EU in Britain's 2016 referendum, and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says Scots shouldn't be forced to leave the bloc against their will.
Sturgeon's pro-independence Scottish National Party won 48 of Scotland's 59 House of Commons seats in last week's election, campaigning on a call for a new secession referendum.
"This election demonstrated a fundamental point: The kind of future desired by most people in Scotland is very clearly different to that favored by much of the rest of the U.K.,” Sturgeon told Scottish lawmakers on Tuesday. "We must have the right to consider the alternative of independence.”
Johnson says he will refuse to approve an independence referendum, because Scotland held one in 2014 that was billed as a once-in-a-generation event. Without U.K. government approval, a referendum would not be legally binding.
Associated Press writer Pan Pylas contributed to this report.
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