British PM holds back from triggering Article 50

After protracted parliamentary debate, the bill authorising the prime minister to invoke Article 50, the legal basis for leaving the European Union, finally became law this week. Late on March 13th the House of Commons rejected two amendments that had been proposed by the Lords. As expected, the upper house then backed down. The government had been hinting broadly that the letter triggering Article 50 would be sent to Brussels immediately. On March 14th Mrs May duly hailed the bill’s passage into law as “a defining moment for our whole country”.

But then came anticlimax: Downing Street said the invocation of Article 50 would actually happen only in the week of March 27th. Before then, Mrs May plans to visit Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. All being well, she will still fulfil the promise she made last October of starting the Brexit process by the end of March.

A delay of two weeks in a negotiation due to last two years may sound trivial. Yet a plan in Brussels to hold a special EU summit on April 6th to discuss Mrs May’s letter had to be hastily junked. The meeting will now take place in early May, losing almost four weeks out of what is already an extremely tight timetable.

So why did Mrs May pull back at the last minute? After all, there was never going to be a perfect moment to invoke Article 50. Doing so just before the Dutch election on March 15th might have bolstered the far-right anti-EU party of Geert Wilders. Acting too close to the 60th anniversary celebration of the Treaty of Rome on March 25th might have seemed provocative. French and, later, German elections also loom in the near future.

The truth seems to be that Mrs May’s plans were upset by Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who chose to announce on March 13th that her government would ask for a second independence referendum. She cited Brexit as the “material change” to justify this demand. And she attacked Mrs May for choosing to pursue a hard Brexit that will take Britain out of the EU’s single market, when a majority of Scots had voted to stay in the EU last June.

The reality is that Brexit is unwelcome not just to Ms Sturgeon but to all of Britain’s European partners. Even as they hold their 60th birthday party—which Mrs May will not attend—they know that the club is in deep trouble, not least because so many countries besides Britain have seen an upsurge of populist anti-EU parties. To most other EU countries, indeed, Brexit is just one more ingredient in a cocktail of often more pressing problems that afflict them.

In this context, indeed, some may take quiet satisfaction from seeing the Scots ruin Mrs May’s plan to trigger Article 50. A few may even see the rising risk of a break-up of the United Kingdom as suitable punishment for Brexiteers. Yet nobody will much enjoy the Article 50 negotiations when they eventually start.

At the same time few are convinced by Mrs May’s repeated mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal, which they see as just an attempt to bolster Britain’s weak bargaining position. On March 15th David Davis, the Brexit secretary, admitted to the Commons Brexit committee that since the referendum the government had made no forecasts of the economic consequences of leaving the EU without a deal and reverting to trade under World Trade Organisation rules. That makes it even harder to see how Mrs May can justify her claim.

Nor are the parliamentary manoeuvres over Brexit finished. This week it emerged that at least seven bills besides the planned “Great Repeal Bill” will be needed to give effect to Brexit. Mr Davis has also conceded that any deal negotiated under Article 50 would require parliamentary approval. And although Lord Bridges, a Brexit minister, said in the Lords that he found it hard to see how Parliament could hold a vote if there were no deal, even that could be open to question. Lord Hope has declared that the Supreme Court judgment which forced the government to bring forward the Article 50 bill may require further primary legislation before Brexit actually happens. And he should know—for he is a former Supreme Court justice.

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