World Europe First Look

Bill to trigger Brexit introduced in Parliament, after May loses case to go it alone

On Tuesday, Britain's Supreme Court reaffirmed that Prime Minister Theresa May needs approval from Parliament before she can formally trigger the country's exit from the European Union.

A man poses with an electronic copy of the Brexit Article 50 bill, introduced by the government to seek parliamentary approval to start the process of leaving the European Union, in front of the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, on January 26, 2017.
Toby Melville/ Reuters
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Seven months after British citizens voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, the country’s Parliament plans to weigh in on the matter with a vote of its own. 

A bill introduced Thursday in the House of Commons would grant Prime Minister Theresa May power to notify the European Union of the United Kingdom's intent to withdraw, pursuant to the formal process outlined in Article 50 of the EU Treaty. If the bill passes the House on a final vote Feb. 8, it will face a second vote in the House of Lords before receiving "royal assent" from Queen Elizabeth II, as Agence France-Presse reported.

Britain’s High Court in London ruled in November that Ms. May would need approval from Parliament to carry out the will expressed by a majority of voters in the so-called "Brexit" referendum. May appealed to the Supreme Court, which affirmed Tuesday that she lacks the legal authority to trigger a political divorce from the continent unilaterally.

The decision poses a major political challenge for May, who recently announced that she will pursue a "hard Brexit" – a swift break with the EU's common market and regulations. The Supreme Court judges did, however, remove one possible hurdle, by saying May would not need the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to sign off on her Brexit plans.

Brexit minister David Davis said the proposal introduced Thursday is designed simply to grant May the permission she needs to move forward.

"This will be the most straightforward bill possible to give effect to the decision of the people and respect the Supreme Court's judgment," Mr. Davis told Parliament, as Reuters reported.

Some who pushed for the Brexit referendum have been angered by the idea that Parliament should authorize the departure.

"I and many others did not exercise our vote in the referendum so as to restore the sovereignty of this parliament only to see what we regarded as the tyranny of the European Union replaced by that of a government that apparently wishes to ignore the views of the house on the most important issue facing the nation," pro-Brexit lawmaker Stephen Phillips told The Guardian in October.

May had planned in the wake of last summer's vote to invoke Article 50 without consulting Parliament, but the court's ruling in November said she lacks the legal authority to do so.

The new bill, only 137 words long, simply grants May the power to notify the EU of Britain’s intent to leave, and states that it has the force of law regardless of any prior laws or treaties. The House will also have just a few days to debate the measure –one-eighth of the time they had to debate the EU’s 1992 Maastricht treaty, according to The Guardian. 

While British lawmakers remain divided on the merits of Brexit, many see value in putting the decision to a vote in Parliament, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in November:

The growing pressure from within Ms. May’s own party to seek Parliament’s consent highlights an unusual convergence of interest between the leftist opposition and the hardline pro-Brexiters: while the government wants to keep an iron grip over the negotiations’ details, in part to box out influence from the leftist opposition, many pro-Brexit members of the body suspect that the government will water down the terms. And many of them have demanded that Parliament weigh in on the departure from the EU – for them it’s a means of recapturing the sovereignty of Parliament.

Not all members agree with this approach. On Thursday, Labor MP Ben Bradshaw, who opposed Brexit, tweeted that allowing only three days for debate on such a consequential issue was "a disgrace."

But May and her allies see things differently: This bill will simply give a seal of approval to the decision that British voters made in June.

"The British people have made the decision to leave the EU and this government is determined to get on with the job of delivering it," Mr. Davis said in a statement after the bill was introduced.