LONDON – Britain’s House of Commons is set to approve a bill authorizing the start of exit talks with the European Union — a major step on the road to Brexit.
The bill sailed through an earlier vote last week 498-114 and is very likely to pass its final Commons test Wednesday evening, keeping the government’s March timetable to trigger EU exit talks on track.
The vote comes after three days of debate in which pro-EU lawmakers tried to pass amendments guaranteeing Parliament a bigger role in the divorce process.
They hope to prevent an economy-shocking “hard Brexit,” in which Britain loses full access to the EU’s single market and faces restrictions or tariffs on trade.
The amendments were defeated, but the government appeared to bow to opposition pressure Tuesday, promising lawmakers they will get to vote on an exit deal before it is finalized by the bloc.
Labour Party Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said opponents of Brexit “haven’t got everything we wanted” but are “chipping away” at the government’s position.
The government didn’t want to let Parliament debate this bill at all. It was forced to introduce the legislation after a Supreme Court ruling torpedoed Prime Minister Theresa May’s effort to start the process of leaving the 28-nation bloc without a parliamentary vote.
Most British lawmakers backed the losing “remain” side in last year’s EU membership referendum. But many say they will vote to trigger Brexit out of respect for voters’ wishes.
The debate is causing ructions in the largely pro-Europe Labour Party, the largest opposition group in Parliament. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn ordered Labour lawmakers to back the bill — but almost four dozen rebelled last week, and could do so again on Wednesday.
If approved by lawmakers, the bill will go to Parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords. Pro-EU peers there — who are appointed for life and don’t have to worry about re-election — are likely to seek new amendments.
The government wants to pass the bill through Parliament by early March and trigger Article 50 of the EU’s key treaty — starting a two-year divorce process — by March 31.