Tuesday and Wednesday will be critical days in the Brexit process as the EU Withdrawal Bill returns to the Commons for a final reading. It has been sent back to the lower House with a raft of 15 amendments added to it after its progress through the Lords. The government has a majority of 14 in the Commons (with the support of the DUP), but some of the amendments are believed to attract enough support from remain-inclined Conservative MPs that the government could lose on some key amendments: notably binding them to work to stay in a customs union and in giving both Houses of Parliament a meaningful vote on the final outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
One of the central tenets of the Brexit campaign was that sovereignty should be restored to the UK Parliament – it has never lost sovereignty, so this was always a red herring. Very few people can be impressed with the government’s divided and shambolic handling of the Brexit process. Parliament can assert its sovereignty by changing the EU Withdrawal Bill to constrain the actions of the executive – the question is will it?
The issue of the Irish border which nobody wants but would be a consequence of the “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra of the PM could be resolved to a great extent if the UK remained in the customs union with the EU (some argue that full solution would require continued single market membership). Neither of the two customs solutions being considered in cabinet (the customs partnership or “Max Fac”) are believed to be sufficient to satisfy the legal requirements needed to avoid a border. The UK has agreed to maintain regulatory alignment in Northern Ireland such that it would be in a de facto customs union with the EU. The UK would like to see this temporarily extended to the whole UK (as a backstop proposal), but Brexiters in cabinet insist that it must be time-limited (which defeats the purpose). However, the EU has made it clear that the offer only applied to Northern Ireland, so they are likely to refuse to accept the UK’s continued informal participation in the customs union after the transitional period.
The EU has consistently said that it would welcome a change of heart over Brexit from the UK and that its negotiating stance will change if Mrs May’s “red lines” are changed.
If the EU Withdrawal Bill passes unamended, there will be further opportunities to legislate on customs arrangements later in the summer when specific legislation is considered.