This week the UK government successfully passed its Brexit bill through the upper and lower Houses of Parliament without any amendments. The legislative process has been completed by royal assent – a legislative formality in the UK. The “European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017” will confer the power on Prime Minister Theresa May to serve formal notice on the European Council of the UK’s intention to leave the EU, invoking Article 50(2) of the Lisbon Treaty – the formal divorce procedure for Member States. The PM was expected to trigger Article 50 within the week; however reports suggest political instability within the UK has caused the Government to revert to its original timetable of late March.
The Houses of Parliament
The House of Lords had proposed two amendments to the government’s bill; the first required the government to unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK within three months of Article 50 being triggered. The government had repeatedly argued such rights should only be guaranteed when the EU 27 offer reciprocal guarantees to UK migrants living in the bloc. The peers’ second amendment provided for a more “meaningful vote” for parliament as it became clear that the promised parliamentary vote on any EU-UK trade exit deal promised by Brexit secretary, David Davis, would be on a “take it or leave it basis” – either accept the terms of the deal or Britain will exit without a deal, reverting to WTO rules. The Government strongly opposed this amendment on the basis it could incentivise the EU to offer Britain a “bad deal”.
After the initial “ping-pong” between the upper and lower houses, as predicted, MPs reversed both amendments made by the peers and restored the bill to its original “straightforward” text. On Monday night, the lords voted overwhelming to reject their own proposed amendments. Of course, Mrs May has already promised (in her Lancaster House speech) that the final deal will be put before Parliament for approval, so provided she remains as PM at the time a deal is agreed, it would be difficult for her to renege on that pledge.
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has announced she will seek legal authority next Wednesday that would allow Holyrood to call a second referendum on Scottish independence. Initially the timeframe for a referendum was proposed to be between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, but the first minister later confirmed she could delay the vote until immediately after the UK’s exit from the EU if more time was needed to confirm the precise terms of an EU-UK deal.
The move comes amid growing tensions between the devolved parliament and Westminster. Scotland voted by a large majority to remain within the EU and the first minster has repeatedly called upon the PM to secure a special deal on Brexit for Scotland – where the devolved territory would retain access to the single market. Further compounding the division, Holyrood has taken the position it, rather than Westminster, should gain competencies over areas such as farming and fishing (currently held by the EU) following Brexit. The first minister has opined that Scottish interests are falling on deaf ears and stated “all of our efforts at compromise have been met with a brick wall of intransigence”. The PM has said that “this is not a moment to play politics or create uncertainty and division”, and emphasised the importance of a united Britain and the UK market for Scotland.