UK Politics: EU raises 'hard Brexit' concerns after MPs pass withdrawal bill

The UK government has set a Brexit deadline of January 31 2020
The UK is on course to leave the EU in January 2020

Boris Johnson's insistence there will be "no alignment" with EU rules after the Brexit transition period has raised concerns among European leaders. Tradefair brings you the latest from UK politics...

Boris Johnson has fixed on a harder Brexit than we anticipated under his predecessor or at the time of the referendum."

- Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar

Boris Johnson's government has cleared the first hurdle to taking the UK out of the EU by January 31 2020, with the Withdrawal Agreement Bill sailing through the House of Commons with a majority of 124 votes.

This outcome was widely expected after the Conservatives won a large majority in the general election. As well as putting the UK on course to leave the EU by the end of January, the bill rules out any extension to the Brexit transition period beyond December 31 2020.

During this period, the UK will seek to finalise a trade deal with Brussels, but there are already signs of friction between the two sides. Johnson ruled out adhering to EU rules after Brexit, while Ireland's prime minister Leo Varadkar said his UK counterpart had "fixed on a harder Brexit than we anticipated".

'No alignment'

The government's Brexit bill passed by 358 votes to 234, with six Labour MPs defying the party whip and voting in favour of it, while a further 32 abstained or didn't turn up to vote.

Furthermore, MPs approved the timetable for the bill, increasing the likelihood that it will pass through the House of Commons by the end of the first full week in January.

Johnson said the bill ensures that the transition period will end on December 31 2020, with "no possibility of an extension", and paves the way for "a new agreement on our future relationship with our European neighbours, based on an ambitious free trade agreement".

He added: "This will be with no alignment on EU rules, but instead with control of our own laws, and close and friendly relations."

His comments raised concerns in the EU, with Varadkar among the leaders pointing out that Johnson's "harder stance" could make the process of reaching a mutually beneficial trade deal more complicated.

'Level playing field'

The Irish leader said: "It is going to be difficult to secure a good trade deal for Ireland, principally because Boris Johnson has fixed on a harder Brexit than we anticipated under his predecessor or at the time of the referendum, and that is one where he talks very much about divergence."

He added that the UK prime minister's approach "is a risk to us and that is evident".

Speaking to reporters in Dublin, Varadkar also raised concerns that, in its efforts to strike trade deals with other international partners, the UK could "undercut" EU member states and lower its financial standards, product requirements and health and safety rules.

The backing of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in the House of Commons vote also attracted a response from Charles Michel, the successor to Donald Tusk as European Council president, who described the vote as "an important step in the Article 50 ratification process".

However, he also stressed that "a level playing field remains a must for any future relationship" between the UK and the EU.

Early signs of friction in the trade talks might cause concern for businesses, since the UK could find itself paying tariffs on exports to the EU if a deal hasn't been agreed and ratified by the end of 2020. The progress of the negotiations will certainly have an impact on stock markets over the course of the year.

The FTSE 100 has enjoyed a strong run-up to Christmas off the back of the clear election result, rising by more than 3% in the week from December 13 to December 20. London's benchmark index was up by a further 0.45% in late morning trading on Monday December 23.

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