Brexit: UK plans to quit EU at 11pm on March 29, 2019. But not everyone OK with that

MPs in Brexit date row – UK or European time?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 12:38pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 12:38pm

MPs opened what is expected to be a fraught parliamentary battle over Brexit with a heated debate over the date Britain leaves the EU – and whether to use London or Brussels time.

Lawmakers had their first chance to scrutinise the EU Withdrawal Bill, which would formally end Britain’s membership and transpose four decades of European Union legislation into UK law.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s minority government, rocked by a string of scandals that forced out two ministers this month, faces potential defeat on a series of amendments on the bill in the weeks ahead.

On Tuesday’s first of eight days of debate, MPs clashed over one of the government’s own motions – to enshrine in law the moment Britain leaves the EU as March 29, 2019 at 2300 GMT – 11:00pm in London and midnight in Brussels.

In a bizarre twist, an opposition Labour MP proposed his own rival amendment to set the departure point as March 30, 2019 by moving it one hour later.

“My amendment decides on British time when to leave, their amendment is at the beckoning of Europeans so we have a very clear choice,” Frank Field said.

But a number of May’s own Conservative MPs were opposed to putting any date on the bill, saying it risks binding the government’s hands if negotiations with the EU go down to the wire.

Britain trigged the two-year Article 50 process of leaving the EU on March 29 this year, but this can be extended if all 28 EU member states including Britain agree.

Former finance minister Ken Clarke, a committed pro-European, said it would be “utterly foolish” not to leave this option open, however unlikely many commentators view it.

The bill – also known as the Repeal Bill – is intended to ensure legal certainty and avoid a damaging “cliff-edge” when Britain leaves the bloc.

The showdown comes as May, weakened by a June snap election in which she lost her parliamentary majority, struggles to assert her authority even over her own cabinet.

Two ministers have quit in the past fortnight – one over sleaze allegations, the other accused of effectively running her own foreign policy.

Two others, including leading eurosceptic Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, are reportedly instructing May how to run Brexit.

She is also under increasing pressure from Brussels to come up with a financial offer to keep negotiations on track, with a crunch summit of EU leaders looming in mid-December.