Which EU laws will Britain keep after all?

U-turn on ‘bonfire of Brussels laws’ could mean a reprieve for working-time legislation and safety standards

EU flag torn
Kemi Badenoch admitted to Tory Brexiters that the majority of almost 4,000 pieces of retained EU law would remain on the statute book
(Image credit: Illustrated/Getty Images)

The government is to drastically reduce the number of EU laws it had planned to scrap by the end of the year as part of Rishi Sunak’s bonfire of Brussels rules and regulations.

In January, the prime minister publicly backed the Retained EU Law Bill that set out to abolish more than 4,000 EU laws by 31 December.

However, Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch has now admitted to Conservative Brexiters that the majority of these laws will remain on the statute book. Only about 800 are now expected to be repealed by the end of the year.

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What the papers say

The change of heart is the “latest Brexit betrayal”, said The Telegraph. A Tory MP told the paper that Badenoch is “a lame minister who is having rings run around her by ‘Remainer’ officials”.

“After the No. 10 games over the Windsor Framework”, this “just rubs further salt in the wounds,” a source from the pro-Brexit European Research Group told GB News. They added that “it sadly seems like the PM’s pledges are becoming increasingly meaningless.”

By contrast, the former British diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall welcomed the “common sense” decision. “Truly the revolution continues to devour its own,” she said on Twitter.

The “new approach” will be “welcomed by business and civil servants” who have been given the “huge task” of earmarking EU rules for repeal, said the Financial Times. The decision “will be seen as another sign of Sunak’s practical approach to EU issues”.

What next?

Under the Retained EU Law Bill – also known as the Brexit freedom bill – introduced during Liz Truss’s short reign as prime minister, the government had committed to repealing or replacing around 4,000 pieces of legislation tied to the UK’s membership of the EU, many to do with employment and environmental laws.

It was a mammoth task with a tight deadline – the government had given itself until the end of 2023 to decide which laws they wanted to scrap, retain or replace. Unless reinstated or replaced by the end of December, many of these EU laws would automatically lapse, a process known as “sunsetting”. However, Badenoch’s allies do not deny that ministers are planning to abandon that “sunset clause”.

The government is “expected to commit to retaining the most high-profile EU-derived laws, including the working-time directive and environmental legislation”, said The Times.

It is also likely that safety standards laws will be retained. Allies of Badenoch said she had asked the European Research Group to give examples of undesirable EU laws that they thought should be removed that were not already on the list of 800.

“The only thing they could come up with was product standards,” said a source. “She told them that as business secretary and as a mother that she thought that product standards were important.”

The consequences of the sunset clause could have been significant. Key employment laws could have been impacted or abolished, including the working time directive, which limits the average weekly working time to 48 hours. Concerns were also raised over what the bill could have meant for environmental protections.

However, Sunak had claimed that the scrapping of EU regulations would have unleashed an “£80 billion science funding boom”, said The Telegraph, and in a move that would have “delighted” former prime minister Winston Churchill, according to the Daily Express, champagne could once again have been sold in a pint bottle.

Nevertheless, the bill was never short of critics. A cross-party group of MPs has sought to rein in the powers of the bill.

“There has been concern about the way that the government is using Brexit as political cover to transfer power over thousands of areas of vital regulation from Parliament to Ministers from across Parliament – whether Labour, Tory, Leaver or Remainer, Lord or MP, we all agree it’s a terrible piece of legislation,” one of the MPs, Stella Creasy, told The New European.

Predicting a climbdown, earlier this month The Observer reported that “the extent of opposition to it from business, environmental groups, unions and Brussels” had “left ministers with no option but to consider delay, and moving to a scaled-down and less hurried version”.

“If we’re honest,” said London Playbook, “it was obvious to lots of people that a Brexit bonfire by 2024 was a highly unrealistic proposition” and Bloomberg reported in July that Lucy Frazer (then a Treasury minister) had recommended a deadline of 2026.

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