LONDON • British MPs have taken a key step towards leaving the European Union, launching a debate on a Bill that would empower Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger Brexit.
Brexit Minister David Davis presented the Bill to Parliament yesterday, allowing MPs their first discussion on giving the government the power to trigger Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which opens two years of negotiations on leaving the bloc.
While the Bill is expected to pass the lower House of Commons, it could be delayed in the upper House of Lords where Mrs May's Conservatives do not have a majority. The government had originally sought to bypass Parliament, insisting it had the power to trigger Article 50 on its own, but the Supreme Court last week ruled it must consult lawmakers.
A majority of both Houses of Parliament opposed Brexit, but Mrs May has urged them to respect the result of the June referendum, when 52 per cent of Britons voted to end the country's four-decade membership of the EU.
Mrs May is under intense pressure to push the Bill through quickly, having promised EU leaders that she will trigger Article 50 by the end of March. At just 143 words, the "European Union Notification of Withdrawal Bill" has been tightly drafted, making it difficult to amend either to delay the government's plans or to tie its hands in the talks.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised not to block the Bill, but his party is deeply divided over Brexit and a large minority of his MPs are expected to rebel. Several opposition MPs have submitted amendments to kill the legislation in its preliminary phase, but they are unlikely to succeed. Dozens of Mrs May's Conservative MPs are also opposed to the Bill. But most have promised to back the government.
"It is not a Bill about whether or not the UK should leave the EU, or how it should do so," Mr Davis said while presenting the Bill.
"It is simply about implementing a decision already made, a point of no return already passed."
Over three days next week, the Commons will consider substantive amendments on issues such as access to Europe's single market.