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British MPs set to finally seal Brexit deal

Britain's main opposition Labour party, bruised by its worst beating at the polls since 1935, said it would vote against Brexit on Thursday knowing that the battle has been lost.

FILE: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses a press conference during an European Union Summit at European Union Headquarters in Brussels on 17 October 2019. Picture: AFP

LONDON - Ending years of arguments that toppled two governments, Britain's parliament is set to finally approve Brexit on Thursday, allowing the traumatised country to become the first to leave the European Union on 31 January.

The House of Commons is all but certain to ratify Prime Minister Boris Johnson's divorce deal with Brussels, drawing a line under an extraordinary era of political chaos and drama.

For much of the time since the 2016 Brexit referendum, lawmakers have been at each others' throats over how, when or even if Britain should leave its closest trading partners after nearly 50 years.

Some viewed Brexit with horror, fearing that it stripped them of their European identities and turned Britain into an insular, slightly smaller and somewhat less important nation.

Others embraced it with fervour, viewing it as a chance to "take back control" from officials in Brussels and see Britain regain some of its past might.

Businesses and governments in Europe, puzzled by Britain's struggles over what they viewed as a self-inflicted wound, hoped that Brexit could still somehow be undone.

But Johnson's comprehensive victory in last month's general election brought an abrupt end to the turmoil, giving his Conservatives a parliamentary majority with which to push it through.

MPs gave their initial blessing to the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill before Christmas, and the government set aside just three days this week for detailed scrutiny of the complex text.

But few MPs even bothered to turn up on Tuesday and Wednesday, with both sessions ending early, while the government easily saw off opposition attempts to amend the text. Thursday's vote was expected after 1700 GMT.

This momentous day on which Johnson effectively gets permission to abandon the European integration project was all but ignored in Thursday's media.

Instead, it became a footnote to Prince Harry and Meghan's decision to quit royal front-line duties, christened "Megxit" in Brexit's honour.

"We will be leaving the EU on January 31. We will have delivered on the PM's commitment to get Brexit done," a government spokesman said, echoing Johnson's simple election mantra.

Britain's main opposition Labour party, bruised by its worst beating at the polls since 1935, said it would vote against Brexit on Thursday knowing that the battle has been lost.

We "may not win many votes in parliament just now, but we can win the moral argument," said the party's Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer, a potential successor to Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

"Whatever (Johnson) says about the wider issues, he must know the government have got this wrong."

The Brexit bill must still be passed by the unelected House of Lords and the European Parliament, which is seen as a formality.

TURNING TO TRADE

All eyes are now on another major challenge: the negotiation of a new relationship between Britain and the remaining 27 EU nations, which form the world's largest single market.

The Brexit deal covers separation issues such as EU citizens' rights and Britain's financial settlement, and sets out an 11-month transition period in which to agree a wider partnership.

Brussels warns the current deadline of December 31 this year is extremely tight, and has given London the option to ask for more time.

But Johnson insists there will be no extension of the transition period, saying that Britain must be free of EU rules as soon as possible.

Ahead of talks with Johnson on Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it would be "basically impossible" to agree everything within London's timeframe.

"We will have to prioritise," she said in a speech to the London School of Economics university, warning of "tough talks ahead".

In response, Johnson's office indicated that it could accept a partial trade deal.

London did not want the EU's long-standing policy that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" - intended to stop one side cherry-picking bits of a deal they like - to define the coming negotiations, a spokesman said.

"We are very clear we want to get on in terms of negotiating a deal," he said.