British Prime Minister Theresa May scored a parliamentary victory as both the Houses of Parliament passed the Brexit Bill unamended late on Monday, leaving her free to trigger Article 50 by the end of March as planned.

There had been speculation that Brexit talks could be triggered as early as Tuesday, but it is now expected to take place at the end of the month, following a meeting of EU heads of government in Rome on March 25 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties, the founding treaties of the European project.

Troubled waters

The parliamentary victory was somewhat overshadowed by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement of plans to hold a second referendum before the end of Brexit negotiations in 2019. Sixty-two per cent of Scots had voted to remain within the EU, and Sturgeon argued that her government had faced a “brick wall of intransigence” in Westminster, and a lack of willingness to engage with the devolved assemblies as had been promised, particularly on the issue of single-market access.

Also complicating matters was the call by Sinn Fein, the second-largest political party in Northern Ireland, for a vote on unifying Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland “as soon as possible”.

The legislation on Brexit has made rapid progress through the Houses of Parliament from late January. The Brexit Bill first made it through the House of Commons unchallenged, but peers in the House of Lords were successful in introducing two amendments guaranteeing EU citizen’s right to remain in the UK and requiring the Parliament to be given more of a voice through the negotiations.

The government had already pledged a vote to the Parliament, but peers sought to ensure it was a meaningful one rather than one that was done on a “take it or leave it basis,” leaving the Parliament with the choice between the deal being proposed and reverting to WTO rules.

However, when the Bill was returned to the House of Commons, these clauses were removed, and the House of Lords subsequently chose not to make another challenge, passing the Bill by a majority of 274 to 118.

The lack of any amendments to the original legislation means the government will be able to commence Brexit negotiations along the lines outlined by May in January and in a subsequent white paper, taking Britain out of the European single market and the customs union, to enable the government to end freedom of movement from the EU.

While attention to date has focussed on opposition within the UK, it is now likely to switch to May’s negotiating partners on the continent, who, to date, have presented a mixed picture of what she can expect from the negotiations.

Among the most vocal has been EU Parliament’s chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt, who has insisted Britain would not be able to “cherry pick”.

National elections

Forthcoming national elections could also impact the tone of negotiations. National elections are due to take place in the Netherlands on Wednesday, where far-right Eurosceptic politician Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom could emerge a major player.

French presidential elections, which begin next month, could see the victory of Eurosceptic Marine le Pen, who has promised to hold a referendum on France’s EU membership if elected.

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