LONDON/BRUSSELS – Britain’s upper house of parliament voted on Tuesday to give lawmakers more power to reject the final terms of the country’s exit from the European Union, ignoring pleas from Prime Minister Theresa May’s government not to hamstring their negotiations.
The vote, which passed by 366 to 268 in the House of Lords, attaches an extra condition to the “European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill” — legislation that will give May the power to trigger divorce talks. She plans to use that power this month.
The amended bill now demands that parliament has to approve any exit deal before it is debated by the European Parliament; if talks fail, lawmakers must approve a decision to walk away without a deal.
Brexit minister David Davis said the government would seek to overturn the changes when the bill is presented for approval to the lower chamber, where May has a slim majority.
“It is clear that some in the Lords would seek to frustrate that process, and it is the government’s intention to ensure that does not happen,” he said in a statement.
The defeat could present a major headache for May if members of her party follow through on their threats to rebel by supporting the amendment.
“I will vote to keep in this amendment,” Anna Soubry, a Conservative lawmaker in the lower chamber, told Sky News. She said parliament needs a proper say on the issue, warning of the dangers of a “hard Brexit” — Britain leaving the EU without a deal.
A split within May’s Conservative Party would undermine her authority at a time when she is facing down demands from Scottish nationalists for a second independence referendum, managing fears that the Brexit could destabilize Northern Ireland and trying to persuade EU powers they must cut her a good exit deal.
The government has already promised parliament a vote on the final deal but believes that restricting May’s ability to leave the negotiating table could encourage the EU to offer a bad deal in the hope that lawmakers would then reject it and potentially halt the Brexit.
“This amendment simply makes the negotiations much harder from day one for the prime minister, as it increases the incentive for the European Union to offer nothing but a bad deal,” said George Bridges, the government’s Brexit minister for the Lords, in his final plea before the vote.
May has insisted that she would be prepared to leave the EU without any deal if the terms on offer weren’t good enough, stating in January, “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.”
But if the changes made on Tuesday become law, she would not be able to do that without parliamentary approval. Bridges said it was unclear what would happen if parliament rejected such a move.
Some of May’s opponents in the Lords have signaled they will not seek to prolong or thwart the legislative process, meaning they could back down and accept an unamended bill if their changes are overturned in the lower chamber.
The news came as the EU’s chief auditor told European lawmakers that the European Union cannot yet assess how much Britain should be asked to pay Brussels when it quits the bloc, as much will have to be settled by negotiation.
In a letter seen Tuesday, the president of the European Court of Auditors (ECA), Klaus-Heiner Lehne, put liabilities to be covered by future budgets that are mostly funded by member states at €344 billion ($364 billion). But he declined to calculate how much Britain’s share of that EU figure should be.
EU officials preparing to negotiate a Brexit treaty once May files for a formal divorce this month cite a working hypothesis that London may have to pay up to €60 billion to cover outstanding commitments before leaving in 2019. That is close to 17 percent of the ECA’s total EU figure, making it similar to Britain’s share of the whole EU economy.
However, Lehne, a former EU lawmaker from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party, said the British share could only be worked out after the Brexit negotiations.
“Regarding an evaluation of the proportion of the figures that would correspond to the U.K.,” he told European Parliament budget committee Chair Ingeborg Graessle in a written reply to questions from the committee.
“We are currently not in a position to answer, as any calculation would depend on numerous assumptions, which may be part of any discussions that ensue.”
An ECA spokesman declined comment on the letter, which among other details showed a need for €64 billion over time to cover pension and other benefits due to EU employees.
EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker warned Britain last month that it faces a “very hefty bill” on leaving.
With last year’s vote for the Brexit fueled in part by arguments over the roughly €10 billion annual cost of Britain’s EU membership, London is expect to argue for paying as little as possible.
Brussels officials have said their priority this year is to agree at least how the final calculation will be made, leaving exact figures to be worked out only at the end.
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