UK govt agrees under pressure to divulge Brexit plan details

AP News
Posted: Dec 07, 2016 12:15 PM
UK govt agrees under pressure to divulge Brexit plan details

LONDON (AP) — The House of Commons was set Wednesday to back Prime Minister Theresa May's March 31 deadline to open exit talks with the European Union, after the British government agreed to publish details of its negotiating plan.

The Conservative government has been reluctant to reveal much about its strategy or goals, saying that would weaken its hand in negotiations with the EU.

Fearing defeat over an opposition motion calling for ministers to disclose more details before the talks start, the government agreed to publish a plan — though it did not say how much detail it would include. It also amended the motion being debated Wednesday to add that Parliament "calls on the government to invoke Article 50" by March 31.

Article 50 of the EU's key treaty is the trigger for two years of talks leading up to a British exit from the 28-nation bloc.

The main opposition Labour Party said it would accept the amendment, making the motion almost certain to pass.

"The terms upon which we leave the EU will define us and our country for many years," Labour Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said. Starmer said Labour lawmakers were not seeking to block Brexit — backed by a majority of voters in a June referendum — but to bring "clarity, scrutiny and accountability" to the process.

Brexit Secretary David Davis promised the government would set out "strategic plans," but said it would not reveal anything that could "jeopardize our negotiating position."

Both the government and the opposition say the motion is non-binding and does not affect a case at the Supreme Court over whether the government has the authority to start negotiations without legislation in Parliament. May's government is appealing a lower court's ruling that lawmakers must get a say before Article 50 can be invoked.

Eleven Supreme Court judges are hearing the case, which has major constitutional implications for the balance of power between Britain's legislature branch and the executive.

May plans to trigger Article 50 using ancient powers known as royal prerogative, which enable governments to join or leave international treaties.

Government lawyers argue that Parliament has already had its say, by passing the 2015 law that made June's referendum on EU membership possible.

But David Pannick, one of the lawyers arguing against the government, said Wednesday that the government does not have the power to take Britain out of the EU — removing rights granted to citizens by membership in the bloc — without the approval of lawmakers.

Lawyers from Scotland and Northern Ireland argued Wednesday that their legislatures also must give consent before the government can act, creating another potential obstacle.

The hearing is due to end Thursday, with the judges giving their ruling next month.

The high-profile case has raised the temperature of Britain's debate about how — and whether — to leave the EU.

Police said Wednesday they had arrested a man on suspicion of making online threats against financial entrepreneur Gina Miller, the lead claimant in the lawsuit against the government over Brexit.

The suspect has been released on bail while prosecutors consider whether to charge him. A 38-year-old man from Scotland also has been issued a "cease and desist" notice as part of the same investigation.