The British parliament has passed the Brexit bill giving the Prime Minister the powers to start the process of withdrawal from the European Union.
Both Houses voted yesterday the 13-line act removing two amendments proposed last week by the House of Lords. The proposed changes were voted down by the House of Commons after two hours of debate. Immediately afterwards, the bill returned to the House of Lords, which finally accepted it unamended.
One of the changes in question was about guaranteeing current rights of EU nationals living in the UK. Campaigning groups were hoping this would end the uncertainty started last June with the results of the EU referendum. But the House of Commons voted against the provision of safeguards (335 to 287 votes) “because it is not a matter that needs to be dealt with in the bill.” For the same reason the House of Lords rejected the amendment with 274 votes to 135.
Several calls have been made in the past months by parliamentary committees, think tanks and civil society organisations to secure the rights of expatriates and to avoid turning people into “bargaining chips” in Brexit negotiations. The British government has so far refused to offer guarantees to EU nationals resident in the country claiming this might undermine the position of UK citizens living in other parts of the EU. Brexit Secretary David Davis repeated that the British government wants to settle the matter at the start of Brexit talks, as EU countries will not enter discussions until the formal withdrawal notification.
“This was the last chance and we struggle to find words to express our utter desperation that EU citizens will now be used by the government as bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations,” commented Nicolas Hatton of the3million, an advocacy group defending rights of EU nationals in the UK. “It’s obviously a disappointing end to the parliamentary process and we will keep a close eye on the government so they honour their promise to make our rights to stay the first item in the Brexit negotiations.”
The government is expected to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, notifying the EU of the intention to leave, the last week of March. After that, the UK and the EU will have to agree how to approach negotiations and what to deal with first. Concrete talks are unlikely to start until summer. David Davis also said a treaty may be needed to settle the rights of expatriates, so the issue might not be solved until the end of the negotiations, in two years.
Doubts remain on what will happen if no deal is agreed between the UK and the EU after the two-year period. Davis suggested an “exchange of letters” could settle the matter.
A report by the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee on the implications of “no deal” said:
Unlike some other aspects of the withdrawal agreement, the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU are not wholly dependent on a deal being struck under Article 50. In both cases, national governments could decide unilaterally to guarantee the rights of those individuals, and may even choose to do so before the Article 50 period is over.
If questions regarding acquired rights for EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU remained unresolved, however, those individuals would face considerable uncertainty around issues including their residency rights, access to employment, ability to claim pensions and other social security benefits, and access to healthcare.
The second amendment rejected yesterday (331 to 286 votes at the House of Commons and 274 to 118 at the House of Lords) was about giving both Houses a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal – or the lack of it. Although the amendment did not pass, an analysis by the Institute for Government suggests the government could “decide to provide additional opportunities for parliament to vote on the outcome of negotiations, without providing a formal right for them to do so in law.”
At present, however, Members of the British parliament have less scrutiny on the Brexit deal than Members of the European parliament. The latter will have to approve the final agreement and could potentially reject it asking EU representatives to go back to the negotiating table. This option is currently not available to British MPs.
The Institute for Government notes: “political leaders of the other 27 member states also promise that representatives of the European parliament will be invited to preparatory meetings with the Council. The UK government has as yet made no comparable commitment to MPs.”
The bill now needs royal assent from the Queen to become law.
Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved.
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