Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for steering Britain out of the European Union ran into more opposition Tuesday as Parliament’s unelected House of Lords approved legislative changes restricting the government’s room to maneuver in divorce talks.
Parliament’s upper chamber voted for a bill authorizing the start of exit negotiations, but with an amendment requiring lawmakers, not just the government, to approve Britain’s exit deal with the EU.
The 366-268 vote is a headache, but not a roadblock, for the government. The bill now returns to the elected House of Commons, which can — and likely will — undo the change next week.
May’s Conservative Party has a majority in the Commons, but not the Lords.
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The House of Lords inserted another change into the bill last week, promising that EU citizens living in Britain can stay after the U.K. leaves the bloc. It, too, is likely to be reversed.
Brexit Secretary David Davis accused some members of the Lords of trying to frustrate the government’s aim of “negotiating a new partnership with the EU” following last year’s national referendum in which Britons narrowly voted to leave the bloc.
“We will now aim to overturn these amendments in the House of Commons,” he said.
May has promised that Parliament will get a vote on Britain’s EU exit terms — but only on a “take it or leave it” basis. If lawmakers reject the agreement she obtains, the U.K. could stumble out of the EU without any deal in place. That’s not good enough for many pro-European legislators.
Michael Heseltine, a former Conservative Cabinet minister, said Britain faces “the most momentous peacetime decision of our time.”
Giving lawmakers a vote on the terms of Brexit would ensure “that Parliament has the critical role in determining the future that we will bequeath to generations of young people,” Heseltine said.
Supporters of the government argue that giving Parliament a veto on the exit deal would encourage the EU to offer Britain bad divorce terms, because lawmakers could always send May back to the bargaining table.
May wants to invoke Article 50 of the EU’s key treaty, triggering two years of exit negotiations, by March 31. She can’t do that until Parliament passes legislation sanctioning the move, and pro-EU lawmakers have been determined to put obstacles in the government’s path.
Back-and-forth between the Commons and the Lords — a process known as “parliamentary ping pong” — could delay passage of the legislation and potentially threaten May’s timetable for starting EU exit talks.