What is the EU Withdrawal Bill?

The Withdrawal Bill aims to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and thus implement the decision of the June 2016 referendum for Britain to leave the EU. Therefore, it upholds the sovereignty of the people, while ending the sovereignty of EU treaties, directives and institutions over the Westminster parliament.

At the same time, the Bill transfers almost all existing EU law into British law in order to streamline the transition process, leaving it until after Brexit for the Westminster parliament to amend or abolish any of the transferred legislation.

Why is the Bill still being debated?

Pro-EU MPs and the House of Lords have tried to undermine and sabotage the Bill at every turn, showing their contempt for the referendum decision of June 2016.

The Bill has been heavily amended in the Lords, thereby creating future opportunities to halt, prolong and even reverse Britain's withdrawal. Now those amendments have come back to the House of Commons for further consideration.

Which amendments are the most controversial?

An unholy alliance of Tory, Labour and LibDem peers have (1) deleted the Bill's proposed exit date of March 29, 2019, (2) sought protection for transferred EU law from legal challenge or ministerial amendment and (3) demanded that the government must negotiate to keep Britain in the European Economic Area, which would mean continued subjection after Brexit to EU Single Market and Customs Union rules and their enforcement by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The 'Hailsham amendment' (proposed by ex-Tory MP Douglas Hogg, now Viscount Hailsham) insists that both Houses of Parliament must agree to the final EU exit settlement by the end of November 2018 and then approve a new Act by the end of January 2019. Failure to agree would mean Britain either remaining in the EU, at least for a period, or leaving the EU without a settlement. Most likely, this would cause a constitutional crisis, a General Election and possibly the election of a government that would organise a second referendum on EU membership.

Powerful forces in big business, the Westminster parliament and the pro-EU media want a second referendum. Their fall-back position is for Britain to withdraw from the EU in name only, while remaining tied to the capitalist 'free market' rules of the EU Single Market and Customs Union.

What about the Tory government's 'power grab' in the Bill?

Pro-EU MPs accuse the Tories of planning to use so-called 'Henry VIII' powers to repeal progressive parts of EU law by proclamation, without debate or legislation. But all governments have had the power to amend or abolish the detail of existing laws by 'secondary' legislation (mostly through orders or regulations known as 'statutory instruments'). The mechanism is open to abuse — but can equally be used by an incoming government to undo previous changes and amend or abolish reactionary laws. As ever, it will be up to the people and their MPs to resist regressive repeal measures and campaign in favour of progressive reforms.

Many of the powers being repatriated from the EU in the Withdrawal Bill are in areas of policy that are now devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh National Assembly. The Bill proposes to hold all repatriated powers centrally until a new or additional devolution framework is agreed between the British, Scottish and Welsh governments and legislatures.

The SNP, Plaid Cymru, LibDems, Greens and pro-EU Labour MPs demand that these powers should be devolved now, within or alongside the Withdrawal Bill. But they know that this would be a complex, time-consuming and in places contentious process. It would offer many fresh opportunities to frustrate EU withdrawal. Had these pro-EU parties and MPs won the EU referendum, of course, all of these powers would remain in Brussels — none would be coming back to Westminster for devolution to Edinburgh and Cardiff ... ever.

Will our rights no longer be protected at a European level?

The Bill does not repeal any human, democratic, employment or trade union rights already enshrined in British or EU law. It does not affect Britain's affiliation to the Council of Europe and its European Court of Human Rights and 1953 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), none of which are related to the EU. Like Britain's own 1998 Human Rights Act, the ECHR is based on the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Instead, the Withdrawal Bill seeks to end the jurisdiction in Britain of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Rulings by the ECJ have reinforced the free movement of capital, goods, services and super-exploited labour across the EU. In upholding the 'right' of companies to establish anywhere in the EU and employ workers below local standards of pay and conditions, the ECJ has effectively outlawed industrial action to enforce negotiated trade union agreements. The ECJ has not defended workers or their unions in Britain from any of the 14 anti-trade union laws enacted by Tory governments since 1980.

Jealous of its own powers to enforce free-market capitalism, the ECJ blocked EU affiliation to the ECHR in December 2014.

Originally, the Withdrawal Bill did not transfer the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights into British law. Most of these rights already apply here under domestic and international law — except for the Charter's big business 'freedoms'. The EU Charter and these 'freedoms' have since been inserted into the Bill by the House of Lords.

Won't the Bill remove employment and environmental safeguards?

All existing EU law is being transferred onto the British statute book, including health and safety and environmental standards. In future, it will be open to British governments and parliaments to 'amend, repeal and improve' such law as they can with all other existing legislation. The Tories say they have no plans to alter the employment or environmental provisions, although nobody should take that at face value.

Nevertheless, why assume that Britain will always elect right-wing governments and parliaments? Or that we are powerless to resist reactionary policies? After all, most of Britain's employment, health and safety, equal pay, minimum wage and environmental reforms have been won through a combination of mass campaigning and progressive legislation — they were never granted to us by the EU!

Indeed, we now have the prospect of winning a left-led Labour government that could repeal the most reactionary parts of EU law — those which discriminate against public ownership, limit state investment in infrastructure, outlaw state aid to industry, ban controls on imports or the export of capital, impose competitive tendering on local government and protect the super-exploitation of migrant labour.

Why not let the Bill go under and get rid of the Tories?

Firstly, there is no guarantee that immediate defeat for the Withdrawal Bill would improve the terms of any final settlement with the EU. On the contrary, EU negotiators would conclude that their 'fifth column' in Britain is strong enough to help impose a punitive EU exit or re-entry agreement on any British government. In return for British access to EU markets, this could involve even higher net contributions to the EU budget, full compliance with present and future EU Single Market and Customs Union rules and extensive jurisdiction for the European Commission, European Central Bank and ECJ in our economic, social and financial affairs.

Secondly, the political consequence would either be a new Tory-led government backed by the LibDems and pro-EU Labour MPs, or a minority Labour government hamstrung by EU laws and institutions whether Britain is in or out of the EU. The position of the pro-EU right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party would be greatly strengthened, while any reversal of the 2016 referendum result could produce a resurgence of UKIP and even more reactionary movements.

So what is the best way forward from here?

All amendments that could lead to the further delay or defeat of the Bill, including those that hand the Lords a veto over any exit settlement, should be rejected. Those amendments that limit the capacity of elected governments and parliaments in Britain to amend or abolish EU law should likewise be removed. No EU institution should have any jurisdiction over public policy after Britain's exit from the EU in March 2019.

A future left or progressive government in Britain must be free to introduce radical policies to take key economic sectors into public ownership, raise funds for investment in infrastructure and support public or private sector enterprises, control the movement of capital internally and internationally, regulate the labour market to promote collective bargaining and abolish super-exploitation, reform or abolish VAT, end compulsory competitive tendering for public sector contracts, etc.

Executive and legislative powers repatriated from Brussels in areas devolved to the Scottish and Welsh legislatures should be transferred to those bodies as soon as possible, within a framework negotiated between the governments in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. Repatriated powers that could be devolved to England, its regions and Cornwall should be transferred to them within a new constitutional settlement for a federal Britain, which would include an English legislature and directly elected regional assemblies where public support exists. Together with disbursement of a large proportion of Britain's gross contribution to EU funds to national, regional and local government, such a process could extensively reduce economic and social inequalities across Britain, while also reinvigorating democracy at every level.

A progressive, federal Britain striving for democratic devolution and social equality — what a fitting alternative to membership of the EU!

What about future relations with the EU and the world?

The peoples of Britain and Europe have forged strong relations of every kind and our institutions cooperate closely in many fields. The EU will remain a major — if already declining — market for Britain's exports for decades to come. It is a source of valuable imports, tourism, skilled labour and students.

It is essential that these relations are maintained and strengthened wherever possible. Many of them do not rely upon Britain's membership of the EU.

It is also important for the British economy, jobs and workers that we retain access to the EU market, whether 'no tariff' or low tariff, with sectoral agreements if no universal agreement can be reached. But this should not be negotiated at any cost. An elected British government must be free to carry out its policies endorsed by the people at the ballot box — just as people and the working class movement must retain their freedom to protest and revolt against the unjust, oppressive and exploitative policies of their governments. This means no backdoor submission to EU laws, rules and institutions through British membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) or the European Economic Area. But it could and should mean bilateral trade and customs agreements between Britain and the EU based on mutual respect and benefit.

Furthermore, it should be born in mind that there is a huge world beyond Europe. Enormous opportunities exist, through the 80-plus global bodies to which Britain is affiliated and the many thousands of bilateral relationships, to strengthen our relations with countries and peoples across the world. The rising economies of China, Brazil, India, Russia, South Africa and elsewhere want our technology, expertise and finance as much as we would benefit from our enhanced economic, social and cultural relations with them.

What does the Communist Party say?

Britain's Communists have campaigned since 1951 against membership of the EU and its forerunners (notably the European Economic Community and before that the European Defence Community and the European Political Community). The EU is the latest stage in the construction of a capitalist, imperialist and militarist United States of Europe designed to (1) block national roads to socialism in Europe (2) exploit working people on every continent and (3) compete against other major powers in the rest of the world.

That is why the CP fought for a No vote in the 1975 Common Market referendum and for a Leave vote against EU membership in 2016. We did so as socialists, internationalists and supporters of democratic popular sovereignty.

In our view, the EU represents the common interests of Europe's biggest capitalist corporations — the 'internationalism' of big business — and not the internationalism of workers and peoples. Its anti-democratic, anti-working class treaties, institutions and policies have deepened insecurity and inequality across Europe, creating the conditions in which far right and racist parties are today winning mass electoral support in France, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Italy, Lithuania, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic while posing as the champions of national sovereignty and working class interests. Meanwhile, by aligning themselves with 'free market' austerity and privatisation policies and the EU, the traditional social-democratic parties in Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Ireland, Cyprus and the Netherlands have dwindled or disintegrated.

Across Europe, Communist and workers' parties recognise that the EU is an obstacle to genuine friendship and cooperation between peoples. It has shown itself to be the enemy of democracy, self-determination and socialism. It is not reformable. Now the left and labour movement in Britain can show that a progressive and socialist alternative can be built outside it.