UK lawmakers passed the Brexit bill on Monday night (13 March), overturning earlier amendments, which aimed to protect EU citizens’ rights in the UK and grant parliament a final vote at the end of the exit negotiations.
Once the bill gets the so-called royal assent on Tuesday and becomes law, it will be up to Prime Minister Theresa May to fire the starting pistol and invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the exit procedure from the EU.
As expected, the House of Commons overturned two House of Lords amendments with the government increasing its majorities. Only a handful of Conservative MPs voted with opposition parties or abstained.
MPs rejected the amendment on EU nationals’ rights by 335 to 287, and the second amendment on whether to hold a “meaningful final vote” after the conclusion of Brexit discussions was voted down by 331 to 286.
“Parliament has today backed the government in its determination to get on with the job of leaving the EU,” Brexit secretary David Davis said in a statement after the vote.
“We are now on the threshold of the most important negotiation for our country in a generation,” he added.
Davis did not make any pledges to lawmakers on allowing parliament to have a “meaningful vote” at the end of the divorce talks, arguing it would make EU leaders less likely to offer a good deal.
He also insisted that the government’s hands should not be tied before negotiations start.
The government also refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, hoping to use them as bargaining chips in talks with other EU countries.
Davis predicted that they would reach a deal “swiftly” on the one million UK nationals living in EU countries and on the right of over 3 million EU nationals living in the UK.
With all the legal hurdles out of the way, Ms May is free to trigger Article 50.
It had been predicted that she might do it as soon as Tuesday, so that the EU-27 could get together before the Easter break and agree on the guidelines for the negotiations.
However, on Monday the Prime Minister’s office said it has always intended to invoke Article 50 at the end of March.
It is now likely to take place after the EU-27 get together in Rome on 25 March for the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome 60 years ago, one of the key building blocks of European integration.
However, speculation swirled on Monday that Downing Street was unnerved by the unexpected call for a second independence referendum by Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon and pushed back the date.
May called Sturgeon’s cry for independence “deeply regrettable”. She accused the Scottish leader of creating more uncertainty, and “playing politics” with the country’s future.
The British prime minister now has two fronts to fight on with two different Unions. It will be a difficult balancing act as any rhetoric that would please the eurosceptics, will most likely further distance voters in Scotland.