Parliament turns up heat on May
Debate on Brexit bill begins; amendments piling up
LONDON — A fragile government, a legislative minefield and a jittery economy are turning up the tension as Britain tries to turn its vote to leave the European Union into a reality.
Exit negotiations with the bloc are stalled on divorce terms, and on Tuesday Prime Minister Theresa May’s government battled to push its central piece of Brexit legislation through a divided Parliament.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is designed to prevent a legal vacuum by converting some 12,000 EU laws into British statute on the day the U.K. leaves the bloc in March 2019.
But many lawmakers claim that the bill gives the government too much power to amend legislation without parliamentary scrutiny. And opponents of Brexit, both from the opposition and from May’s Conservative Party, will try to amend it to soften the terms of Britain’s exit from the bloc.
The House of Commons began eight days of debate on the bill Tuesday, and lawmakers have filed hundreds of proposed amendments, each one a challenge for a minority government that relies on support from a small Northern Ireland party to avoid defeat on key votes.
A group of pro-eu Conservatives is threatening to defeat the government unless there are concessions to avoid a “hard Brexit,” that is, an exit without a deal on seamless new trade relations that many businesses fear will cause economic turmoil.
The government has tried to mollify rebellious lawmakers by promising that Parliament will get a vote on any Brexit deal agreed on between Britain and the bloc before Britain leaves in March 2019.
But Brexit Secretary David Davis said the vote will be a “take it or leave it” choice: If Parliament rejects the deal, Britain will crash out of the 28-nation bloc without an agreement.
Many businesses see that as a worst-case scenario, as it would bring tariffs and red tape that could see trade with the bloc grind to a halt. On Tuesday, a group of lawmakers warned that there could be catastrophic consequences if Britain fails to put a new customs system in place before the U.K. leaves the EU.