LONDON – British lawmakers pressured the Conservative government Wednesday to give Parliament a vote on the negotiating terms for the U.K.’s exit from the European Union, as uncertainty about what kind of deal the U.K. is seeking with the EU rattles business leaders and currency markets.
Government ministers, however, insisted it would not be wise to give too much away while Britain’s stance is still being worked out.
The opposition Labour Party forced a parliamentary debate on a motion calling for lawmakers “properly to scrutinize” Britain’s position. Labour Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer agreed that Britons had voted June 23 to quit the 28-nation bloc, but said there was no consensus on the terms.
“That question was not on the ballot paper,” Starmer said.
“It’s frankly astonishing that the government proposes to devise the negotiating terms of our exit from the EU, then to negotiate and then to reach a deal without a vote in this House,” he added.
Prime Minister Theresa May says she will invoke Article 50 of the EU treaty — triggering two years of official exit talks — by March 31, but has declined to reveal details of Britain’s negotiating hand.
Opposition lawmakers — and some from May’s own Conservative Party — say Parliament should be given a role in approving Britain’s terms. They worry the government has decided to seek a “hard Brexit,” which means leaving the bloc’s single market of 500 million consumers in order to exercise more control over immigration.
Signs that Britain may be headed for a “hard Brexit” have alarmed some business leaders and contributed to a slide in the pound, which has lost almost a fifth of its value against the dollar since June 23.
The pound sank even further Wednesday, losing another 0.8 per cent to reach 1.217 to the dollar before recovering some of the lost ground.
The government insists a vote in Parliament is not required before Article 50 is triggered.
But the issue has split the Conservatives, and Tory lawmakers loudly heckled one another during the afternoon-long debate.
In a bid to head off a Conservative revolt, May promised that lawmakers would get a say, as long as it “does not undermine the negotiating position of the government.”
Starmer welcomed May’s change of position, but said it was not enough.
He said ministers had to “show that they actually have a coherent plan, agreed across the government, before they embark on the Article 50 process.”
Brexit Secretary David Davis told lawmakers the government was still “putting together our negotiating strategy” and could not reveal too much.
“We’ve had people talking about ‘hard’ Brexit and ‘soft’ Brexit, which means very little,” he said. “We have not started the negotiation with the European Union yet and there is a whole spectrum (of outcomes) from a free trade area to a customs union to the single-market arrangement.”
Wednesday’s debate is due to end in a vote, but it will not be binding on the government.