LONDON — The British minister in charge of quitting the European Union warned lawmakers Tuesday not to block the start of divorce talks, saying the country had passed “a point of no return” in its decision to leave.
The House of Commons is holding two days of debate on a bill authorizing Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger two years of exit talks, as the government races to meet a self-imposed March 31 deadline to begin the process.
The government was forced to introduce legislation after a Supreme Court ruling last week torpedoed May’s effort to start the process of leaving the 28-nation bloc without a parliamentary vote.
The brief piece of legislation says that “the prime minister may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.”
Kicking off the debate, Brexit Secretary David Davis said legislators had to answer a simple question: “Do we trust the people or not?”
“It’s not a bill about whether the U.K. should leave the union or indeed about how it should do so,” he said. “It is simply about Parliament empowering the government to implement a decision already made — a point of no return already passed.”
Assuming lawmakers agree on Wednesday, the bill will move on to committee scrutiny and then Parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords.
Ministers hope the European Union (Notice of Withdrawal) Bill can be pushed through both houses of Parliament by early March so the government can meet its March 31 deadline.
The main opposition Labour Party said it would try to amend the bill to give lawmakers final approval of the settlement with the EU, but not block it.
Labour Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said that “as democrats, our party has to accept the result” of the referendum.
“Had the outcome been to remain, we would expect the result to have been honoured, and that cuts both ways,” he said.
But some Labour lawmakers who represent areas of the country that voted to remain in the EU say they will respect their constituents’ wishes and vote against triggering the Brexit process.
The Commons debate revealed a chasm between pro-Brexit lawmakers who believe a sovereign Britain will prosper once freed from EU shackles, and those who think the country risks disaster by walking away from the bloc and its borderless internal market for goods and services.
Pro-Brexit Conservative Bill Cash said the vote to leave the EU was a “peaceful revolution” on a par with votes for women and the working class.
But Ken Clarke, a pro-EU Conservative, said promises of a bright economic future outside the bloc were an “Alice-in-Wonderland”-style fantasy.
“Apparently you follow the rabbit down the hole and you emerge in a wonderland where suddenly countries around the world are queuing up to give us trading advantages and access to their markets that previously we had never been able to achieve as part of the European Union,” he said.
“No doubt there is somewhere a hatter holding a tea party with a dormouse,” he added.