The British Government has published plans for a herculean legislative task: converting thousands of European Union laws onto the British books as the country begins its Brexit decoupling from Brussels.

The law-changing blueprint landed after Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, officially serving the European Union divorce papers and beginning exit negotiations expected to last two years.

The swift release of the Government's plans for the "Great Repeal Bill" reflects just how split Britain remains as divorce talks loom with the EU. Leaders now sense a greater urgency to calm Brexit opponents, including many businesses worried about Britain's new legal structure.

The repeal bill will see thousands of EU laws - covering such topics as worker's rights, environmental rules and finance regulations - transposed into British codes to provide legal certainty and a "smooth and orderly" departure from the EU.

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The bill seeks to show workers, consumers and businesses that the "rules have not changed overnight", David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, told the House of Commons. He also said that it signalled the end of the supremacy of EU law in Britain. "Our laws will then be made in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast," he said, referring to the capitals of the four members of the United Kingdom.

The plans, published in a policy paper, have been described as a gigantic "cut and paste" job, repatriating 40 years of powers from Brussels to London. From there, Britain will decide which laws to keep and which to scrap - with the Government granted new authority to make the changes.

But officials insist that the powers - dubbed "Henry VIII powers" by critics after the imperious monarch - are needed to make "corrections" to EU laws once they were taken onto the books.

Some in the opposition called it a "government power grab" and said that the plans give the Government too much authority to change laws without parliamentary oversight.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the Commons this week that Brexit "will be an opportunity for this country to get rid of some of the burdensome regulation that has accreted over the last 44 years" - when Britain joined the group that would evolve into the European Union.

Others argue that the regulations are essential, and Britain would suffer if its laws did not closely mesh with the 27 remaining EU states.

Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green party, tweeted that the bill "could undermine 40 years of environmental and social protections with no Parliamentary scrutiny".

Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst with Eurasia Group, said in a briefing note that "an enormous lobbying operation will swing into action as different sectors try to defend their interests during the filtering process". "Business will be watching the debate closely," he said.

Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson