, London, United Kingdom, Feb 20 – Britain’s House of Lords could delay a bill empowering Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger Brexit, with EU citizens campaigning for their rights to be protected as debate got under way Monday.
In a highly unusual move, May watched on as the upper house of parliament opened its debate on the draft legislation after it was overwhelmingly approved by the elected lower House of Commons earlier this month.
But the bill’s passage through the Lords may not be smooth as May’s Conservative Party does not hold a majority in the unelected chamber, which could try to push through amendments to the law.
Peers are proposing changes, including measures to guarantee the rights of EU nationals in Britain, and defining how parliament votes on a final Brexit deal.
May urged the Lords to follow the lead of the Commons and neither amend the bill nor delay it. The government is still expecting to stick to its timetable of triggering Brexit by the end of March.
“There will be debate and scrutiny in the House of Lords, but I don’t want to see anybody holding up what the British people want… which is for us to deliver Brexit, to leave the European Union,” she said.
The bill gives May the right to trigger Article 50 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty, the formal procedure to start negotiations on leaving the bloc.
The government presented the short bill after losing a high-profile court battle in which judges ruled that May must have the consent of parliament before beginning divorce proceedings with Brussels.
The legislation sailed through the Commons earlier this month by 494 votes to 122.
In a June referendum, 52 percent of voters opted to leave the EU after four decades of membership, sending shockwaves across Europe.
– ‘Will of the people’ –
But the government could face greater challenges in the Lords, where only 252 of the more than 800 members are from the centre-right Conservatives.
Tory peer Natalie Evans opened the two-day debate on Monday, calling the bill “short and straight-forward… and historic.”
“I know that noble Lords respect the primacy of the elected House (of Commons), and the decision of the British people on June 23 last year,” she said.
“This bill is not the place to try and shape the terms of exit.”
In response, Labour peer Angela Smith warned that lords should not “provide the government with a blank cheque” and that they would not be intimidated by MPs who have warned the upper house could be abolished if it held up the bill.
A few hundred EU citizens demonstrated outside parliament as the debate kicked off, waving flags from their countries and the EU.
“Before Brexit, I never thought to return, but I’ve changed my mind and I will,” Araceli Rodriguez, a Spaniard in her 60s told AFP. “It’s not worth staying in a country that doesn’t want you”.
Two further days of discussions next week and a final reading are scheduled for March 7.
If they vote to amend the bill it will pass back to the Commons for more debate, drawing the process out further.
On that possibility, May’s spokesman told reporters that: “What’s important is that we trigger Article 50 according to the timetable we set out.”
The government was “confident” of doing this, he added.
– Threat to unelected lords –
Some politicians warned that voters would not look kindly on unelected lords seeking to block the Brexit bill.
“Peers would be wise to consider this clear democratic mandate, and their own futures, when debating the Article 50 bill,” said Conservative MP Dominic Raab.
Paul Nuttall, leader of the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party, warned that Britain could be plunged into a constitutional crisis if the Lords tinker with the bill.
“I cannot predict the ferocity of the response we might see if our democracy is subverted in this way.”
Former British prime minister Tony Blair on Friday urged Britons who support EU membership to “rise up” and persuade Brexit-backers to change their mind.
But May’s spokesman said on Monday: “We’ve been absolutely clear that Article 50 will not be revoked after notification.”