LONDON – British lawmakers delivered a blow to Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plans Wednesday by giving Parliament the final say on any exit agreement the government reaches with the European Union.
The House of Commons voted 309-305 to give lawmakers what is essentially a veto on the terms of Brexit, a challenge to May’s fragile authority amid the already strained disentanglement process. The vote came on the eve of a major EU summit.
A dozen lawmakers from the prime minister’s governing Conservative Party sided with the opposition to insist that any withdrawal deal with the EU requires an act of Parliament to take effect.
May had promised lawmakers a “meaningful vote” on the departure agreement, but political opponents and some within her own party said her assurance was not enough of a guarantee.
The vote was the government’s first defeat in Parliament on its Brexit legislation.
It came as an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill, the government’s flagship piece of Brexit legislation. The bill itself, which still is moving through Parliament, would convert some 12,000 EU laws into British statutes on the day the U.K. leaves the bloc in March 2019. Without it, Britain could face a legal black hole the day after Brexit.
The government said it was disappointed with the result and would see whether changes were now needed to the “essential” legislation.
If the amendment survives a final vote on the withdrawal bill, it would not have a direct impact on Britain’s negotiations with the EU. But it could reinforce perceptions in the bloc that May lacks authority.
It increases pressure on May, who is caught between the opposing wings of a government and Parliament deeply split over Brexit.
The vote was hailed by those who support a “soft Brexit” – in which Britain continues to align closely with the EU – as a sign that the government will have to pay more attention to Parliament, where pro-EU forces are in a majority.
Pro-EU Conservative lawmaker Dominic Grieve, who drafted the amendment, said it ensured Parliament did not give the government a “blank check” on Brexit.
EU leaders, including May, open a two-day summit Thursday during which they are slated to agree that there has been “sufficient progress” for Brexit talks to move to the second phase of future relations and trade, a subject Britain wants to open as soon as possible.
Earlier Wednesday, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said there could be “no turning back” for Britain on commitments made during an initial divorce deal between the two. He spoke after his U.K. counterpart insisted it was merely a “statement of intent.”
Barnier told legislators at the European Parliament that the negotiations so far have been “extremely complex and extraordinary” but insisted he had made no concessions to the British side.
U.K. negotiator David Davis riled officials in Brussels by suggesting on the weekend that the deal was less than cast in stone. The initial deal involved agreement on keeping a transparent border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland, as well as guarantees on citizens’ rights.
But, Barnier said, “progress has been noted and recorded and is going to have to be translated into a legally binding withdrawal agreement.”
The European Parliament’s chief Brexit official, Guy Verhofstadt, said Davis had assured him “it is absolutely not his intention, not the intention of the U.K. government, to backtrack on their commitments.”
Britain is due to leave the bloc in March 2019, but a Brexit deal will have to be agreed by the fall of 2018 to give national parliaments time to approve it.
European Union Council President Donald Tusk warned Tuesday that it would be a “furious race against time” to finish Brexit negotiations by autumn.
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