UK Govt Gives Lawmakers Limited Time to Eye Bill on Brexit

January 27, 2017 Updated: January 27, 2017

LONDON—As British lawmakers cried out “Disgraceful!,” the Conservative government on Thursday introduced the long-awaited bill to start the country’s exit from the European Union and gave the House of Commons less than two weeks to consider it.

David Davis, the Cabinet secretary in charge of Brexit, unveiled the legislation just two days after a Supreme Court ruling that torpedoed the government’s effort to avoid a parliamentary vote on starting the process of leaving the 28-nation bloc.

The Commons will begin debate on the bill on Jan. 31 and it is set to go to the House of Lords on Feb. 8.

Prime Minister Theresa May is rushing to meet a self-imposed deadline of March 31 for triggering Article 50 of the EU treaty, which will launch two years of talks on Britain’s future relationship with the bloc after more than 40 years of membership. Voters approved Britain’s EU exit in a June 23 referendum.

“I trust that Parliament, which backed the referendum by six-to-one, will respect the decision taken by the British people and pass the legislation quickly,” Davis said.

The text of the measure was brief. It stated that the prime minister “may notify, under Article 50 (2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.”

Some lawmakers, mindful that the government had fought for months to keep them from scrutinizing the measure, were furious that they would get such a short time to consider what is possibly the most influential government move in generations. One pro-EU lawmaker, Chris Leslie, said the House was getting far less time “to debate the legislation that takes us out of the EU than we did previous European treaties.”

“This is the most significant law we’ve ever debated on our relationship with Europe and yet the government will only give it an eighth of the time that was spent on the Maastricht Treaty,” he said.

Erika Szyszczak, a European law expert from the University of Sussex, said Maastricht was thrashed out for weeks.

“This bill is yet again another example of the political ground constantly shifting when it comes to Brexit,” she said.

Artist Kaya Mar holds a painting near Parliament in London, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. Lead plaintiff Gina Miller says British Supreme Court ruling provides the legal foundation to trigger Brexit. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Artist Kaya Mar holds a painting near Parliament in London, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

“Allowing only five days to debate the details gives MPs little room for maneuver in terms of laying opposition amendments.”

Lawmakers heckled House of Commons Leader David Lidington as he announced the timetable, which allows for just three days of committee debate—which is when members of Parliament from all parties will make attempts to amend the legislation. Lawmakers shouted “Disgraceful!” and said similar measures had received much more time for discussion.

Chuka Umunna of the opposition Labour Party accused the government of trying to “muzzle” the Commons.

Even as it introduced the legislation, the government refused to make any promises on when it will give lawmakers a formal plan for Brexit. May has pledged to reveal the details of her negotiating objectives in a so-called White Paper.
Opposition lawmakers, however, want to see the plan before they consider the bill.

“I’ve said we will produce it as expeditiously as possible, as quickly as possible,” Davis told Parliament. “What can you do faster than that?”

The debate took place without a key player in the process—May. The prime minister traveled to the United States to meet Republican lawmakers on Thursday.