UK officials want Sunak to postpone ‘bonfire’ of EU laws until 2026

(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak has received requests from senior public officials to delay by three years until 2026 a planned legislative “bonfire” starting with the United Kingdom’s accession to the European Union, as the latest blow to his government’s efforts to demonstrate that there are benefits of Brexit.

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Officials from several government departments have told ministers the deadline to remove some 4,000 EU-derived pieces of law from the UK statute book by 31 December 2023 will be difficult to meet, according to three people familiar with the internal discussions . The revelation comes after an alliance of business, environmental and labor groups urged the government this week to drop the plans.

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Delivering the plan would require thousands of civil servants to work full-time to meet the deadline, officials have warned. Staff tasked with reviewing each EU law have 25 detailed questions to answer about each one, and one official estimated that the combined answers would amount to around 20 million words.

A government spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

The problem for Sunak is that postponing the deadline would likely put him on a collision course with prominent Brexite advocates in the Conservative Party, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has said the UK’s withdrawal of EU laws should be “easily achieved”. The timing is far from ideal, with deep divisions making the ruling party increasingly difficult for Sunak to manage.

Promises

Sunak said during the Conservative leadership’s summer campaign – one he lost to Liz Truss, whose premiership imploded in record time – that he would “revise or repeal” EU laws in his first 100 days as prime minister.

Yet Bloomberg reported in July that a senior Treasury official during Sunak’s time as Chancellor of the Exchequer had warned that the removal of EU law wouldn’t even be possible by 2026, let alone late next year.

Officially, the government says its EU Conservation Bill “will enable us to create a new pro-growth, high-standards regulatory framework that gives businesses the confidence to innovate, invest and create jobs, making the UK the best regulated economy in the world.” But the legislation includes a provision to push back the “sunset” date from 2023 to 2026 if necessary.

While politically sensitive for Sunak’s party, the complications and headwinds created by Brexit are becoming increasingly apparent. The Sunday Times newspaper reported over the weekend that senior government officials intend to put Britain on the path to a closer, Swiss-style economic relationship with the bloc, although Sunak and Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt both rejected the idea.

Paperwork

Tearing up EU laws has proved extremely difficult, according to officials working on the policy. Officials are required to estimate the costs and benefits for the specific UK businesses directly concerned and a comprehensive analysis of how the 4,000 Acts intertwine with UK legislation and regulations.

Many of the 25 questions asked for each piece of legislation have multiple sub-questions. One official involved complained that it would take days to answer some individual questions and that the total responses would add up to 40,000 pages.

To make matters worse, some government departments are still unable to pinpoint every piece of EU-derived legislation in their area, another official said. The Financial Times reported this month that researchers at Britain’s National Archives have unearthed another 1,400 previously unknown pieces of EU law.

The UK voted to leave the bloc six years ago.

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