British Prime Minister Theresa May is set to begin the countdown to Brexit after parliament gave her the green light — while Scotland wrong-footed her by launching a fresh bid for independence.
Downing Street has played down speculation that May could announce yesterday that she is triggering the Article 50 process to leave the EU, indicating that it would take place later in the month. However, coming just hours after lawmakers approved a bill empowering her to begin the divorce, the prime minister’s statement in the House of Commons could be an opportunity to set out her plans in more detail.
May appeared to be caught off guard on Monday when Scotland’s nationalist government announced plans for a second referendum on breaking from the UK.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had warned that the prospect was on the cards since June last year’s vote to leave the EU — in which a majority of Scots voted to stay — but an announcement had not been expected so soon.
May immediately condemned the plan, saying that less than three years after Scots voted by 55 percent to reject independence another vote would cause only “uncertainty and division,” but it realized one of her biggest fears about Brexit and opened up a second battlefront as she prepares for two years of tough negotiations with the EU.
EU leaders were braced for a potential announcement on Article 50 this week and the European Parliament was ready to hold a special debate and a vote on its plans for the negotiations.
While that was looking less likely, ministers insist that Brexit will begin by the end of this month, putting Britain on course to become the first nation to leave the EU by March 2019.
The EU is determined to ensure that Brexit will not encourage other nations to follow Britain out the door and big battles await over budget contributions, as well as immigration and trade ties.
Manfred Weber, a German lawmaker who leads the European People’s Party, the biggest grouping in the European Parliament, said Scotland’s breakaway bid signaled “a deepening of the splits in British society.”
“People all over Europe can see how risky it is to take the EU into question,” Weber said.
After weeks of wrangling, British lawmakers late on Monday granted May the right to trigger Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which would start the divorce process.
The bill still requires the formality of royal assent from Queen Elizabeth II to become law.
The government reportedly wants to start the process after a March 25 summit in Rome to mark the EU’s 60th birthday.
May has the power to block a second independence vote in Scotland, but that would most likely only energize the nationalist cause.
Polls suggest that a new referendum would be a much closer fight than in 2014, as the Scottish National Party is hoping a newly sovereign Scotland would be able to maintain close ties with the EU, but the European Commission was quick to warn that Scotland would not inherit Britain’s EU membership and would have to reapply as a new nation.