Britain has taken a step closer to withdrawal from the European Union after MPs overturned House of Lords amendments to a Bill authorising Theresa May to commence Brexit negotiations.
But the British Prime Minister looks set to wait another fortnight before kicking off the two-year process of negotiating departure under Article 50 of the EU treaties, with formal notification expected to take place in the last week of March.
Mrs May’s official spokesman played down suggestions that the PM had delayed notification due to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that she plans to stage a second independence referendum in the run-up to the expected date of Brexit in spring 2019.
If the Upper Chamber decides not to contest the rejection of its amendment by the elected House, as expected, Mrs May needs only to await assent from the British royal family of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill before triggering Article 50.
There was widespread speculation in Westminster that she could do so as early as Tuesday, when she is scheduled to make a statement on Europe to the Commons.
But her spokesman told reporters the British PM had always said she would notify the European Council of the UK’s intention to leave by the end of March, adding: “I’ve said ‘end’ many times but it would seem I didn’t put it in capital letters strongly enough.”
Notification in the last week of March would not only avoid clashing with the general election taking place on Wednesday in the Netherlands, but would also delay the formal opening of negotiations until after a special summit in Rome on March 25 when the remaining 27 member states will celebrate the EU’s 60th anniversary.
The Prime Minister’s European counterparts had been prepared for her to make an announcement this week, with April 6 pencilled in as the date for a meeting of the 27 other EU leaders to respond to the situation – a gathering which will now be pushed back until later that month.
MPs rejected a Lords amendment to guarantee the status of EU nationals resident in the UK by a margin of 335 votes to 287, and also overturned a second amendment, which would have required the British Government to grant Parliament a “meaningful” vote on the withdrawal deal eventually secured by Mrs May, by 331 votes to 286.
The Bill is due to return to the Lords in the first stage of “parliamentary ping-pong” which is expected to conclude on Monday evening.
Urging MPs to reject the Lords amendments, Brexit Secretary David Davis said the majority of voters, regardless of whether they backed Leave or Remain, wanted Mrs May to “get on with the job in hand and to do so with no strings attached”.
Mr Davis told MPs he felt a “moral responsibility” towards four million EU nationals in Britain and UK expats living on the continent and wanted swift agreement on their status.
He said he hoped a guarantee of their future rights would be confirmed in an exchange of letters in advance of the completion of the final deal, to end uncertainty for foreign nationals as quickly as possible.
He warned that calls for a parliamentary vote on the deal could be interpreted as an attempt by MPs or peers to defy the will of the British people.
“Whilst it has been badged as a meaningful vote, the reality is there are some who would seek to use this to overturn the result of the referendum,” he said.
“Any prospect that we might actually decide to remain in the European Union would only serve to encourage those on the other side to give us the worst possible deal in the hope we will do exactly that.”
Brexit activist Gina Miller, whose courtroom victory forced the Government to seek Parliament’s approval to trigger Article 50, said she was “very disappointed” that MPs had failed to push harder for change.
Ms Miller told BBC Radio 4’s PM: “My disappointment is that a number of MPs seem to think that their role is to be a rubber stamp, rather than to scrutinise and represent their communities on what’s best for Britain. So I’m very disappointed in the lack of action from some MPs.
“Their role is to scrutinise the Government and they haven’t asked enough questions, they haven’t pushed for these amendments.”