What You Need to Know: Britain's Brexit 'Great Repeal Bill'

Brexit face paint
Two activists with the EU flag and Union Jack painted on their faces kiss each other in front of Brandenburg Gate to protest against the British exit from the European Union, Berlin, June 19, 2016. Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

If Wednesday's triggering of Article 50 started the clock ticking on Brexit negotiations, on Thursday Britain's politicians began turning over their exam papers, getting out their pens, and starting to get stuck into the detail.

Brexit Secretary David Davis published a preliminary summary, or "white paper," of the Great Repeal Bill, a dramatically titled new law that aims to convert EU laws into British laws by the time Britain leaves the bloc.

It's a complicated document with a lot of legalese, but here's the key points you need to know.

It is supposed to be a cut and paste job

The British people voted for Brexit partly because leaving the EU would let them "take back control of our laws." Key to the Euroskeptics' argument was that only the British parliament and the devolved parliaments should have the power to tell people in Britain or its constituent nations how to run their lives.

The problem is that at the moment, lots of the laws Britain operates under depend on the EU. The government estimates that there are 12,000 EU regulations in force in Britain today, and they don't necessarily have any equivalent in U.K. law. There are also, the white paper says, almost 10,000 British laws that to some extent involve implementing EU legislation in Britain, and which might not make sense after Brexit.

So, the government says, the best thing to do is to make sure that when Britain leaves, all of these are converted into fully fledged British law without reference to aspects of the EU it is no longer part of. British politicians could then, if they wanted, go back to them and get rid of or change any they wanted to.

Opposition MPs and journalists will be watching closely for whether the government tries to use the bill to do anything more than this.

The government is getting new powers, and everyone is talking about Henry VIII

What does the 21st century quandary of Brexit have to do with a portly Tudor monarch? There's a clause in the Great Repeal Bill that people are calling the "Henry VIII clause" because it hands new powers to legislate to the government, a bit like a 1539 Act that gave big Henry new rights over parliament.

In the white paper, the government argues that it needs new powers to "enable corrections to be made to the laws that would otherwise no longer operate appropriately once we have left the EU."

The government insists this power will only be used for minor tweaks: for example, some of the laws in question might refer to a specific EU regulator that Britain has decided to leave. In that case, the law would need to be changed to refer to a British regulator. The government argues that allowing full parliamentary scrutiny of all of these changes would be unnecessary and would take too long.

But the opposition Labour Party is warning that this could be used to alter more important matters by the back door. Keir Starmer, Labour's Brexit spokesman, said in parliament Wednesday that he needed assurances that "all relevant, substantial rights in the [EU] charter will be converted into domestic law thru this bill." Davis said in response that this "goes without saying."

And Mark Elliott, a Cambridge law professor, has warned that the circumstances in which the government could use these powers are "very broad."

These are circumstances in which Government says secondary legislation will be justified. In combination, these circumstances are very broad pic.twitter.com/ZOaLr0bCzH

— Mark Elliott (@ProfMarkElliott) March 30, 2017

Goodbye, CJEU

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the EU's top court, and a bugbear for Euroskeptics. The idea that a bunch of "unelected judges" (nb: in Europe there is rarely another kind) on the "Brussels gravy train" can make rulings that British courts have to follow makes some people furious.

A clause in the white paper will make those same people very happy. The white paper says that, in future, past decisions of the CJEU will only have the same force for British judges as rulings of the British supreme court.

So if the U.K. supreme court thinks it is "right" to depart from a previous EU court ruling, the white paper says, it will have the power to do so.

But, the white paper stresses, at the moment of Brexit, U.K. law based on previous rulings by the CJEU will remain the same.

No promises for the nations

As powers come back to the U.K. from the EU, there's a question mark over who will get them: will they go to the U.K.-wide government in Westminster, or the devolved governments that hold some powers over the nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The white paper is pretty vague on this issue. It notes that while in some areas where the EU currently holds powers, like agriculture, devolved governments are responsible for implementing the instructions set by the EU.

The white paper does not promise that devolved governments will get full powers over these areas after Brexit. Instead, it says, "frameworks" set by the EU in these areas will be converted into U.K. frameworks, and then promises a "discussion" with devolved administrations about which of these will need to stay as U.K.-wide frameworks, and which can be devolved further.