EU leaders prepare for Theresa May to trigger Article 50 within days

Beth Rigby, Senior Political Correspondent

European leaders are preparing for formal Brexit negotiations to begin within days should Theresa May trigger Article 50 next week.

EU leaders, meeting in Brussels, were told to prepare for the possibility that Britain could trigger talks as early as next Tuesday, with a formal gathering on 6 April pencilled in to respond to Britain's formal letter of notification.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny confirmed to reporters that the EU 27 had provisionally agreed a meeting in early April to agree a framework for exit talks.

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"The next meeting is to be on the 6th of April, provided that the [British] Prime Minister [Theresa May] moves Article 50, I think by the 15th of March," he said.

"There will be a response immediately from the European Council, and there will be guidelines issued within 48 hours. And the European Council meeting to adopt those guidelines will be on 6 April."

However, some European sources remained sceptical that the Prime Minister would go for such a tight timetable, given that she would risk a diplomatic upset by triggering Article 50 immediately before the Dutch elections on 15 March.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Mrs May has scheduled a major Commons statement on Tuesday, raising Brexiteers' hopes she might use it to formally trigger Brexit.

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David Lidington, the Commons Leader, said the Prime Minister's statement on the EU Council had been moved from Monday to Tuesday - blaming diary commitments.

The EU Notification of Withdrawal Bill will return to the House of Commons on Monday - after its passage through the House of Lords - and could be voted through as early as Monday evening - giving the Prime Minister the opportunity to formally trigger Article 50 on Tuesday.

However, that timetable could only be met if the House of Lords, which last week sent the bill back to the House of Commons with two amendments, decides to allow the bill to pass.

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The upper chamber has voted in favour of giving Parliament a "meaningful vote" on the outcome of divorce talks with the European Union.

Peers are also calling for the rights of EU nationals living in the UK to be protected after Article 50 is triggered.

The Government is planning to overturn the two amendments when the bill returns to the House of Commons on Monday, with David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, describing the Lords vote as "disappointing".

"[The article 50 Bill] has a straightforward purpose - to enact the referendum result and allow the Government to get on with negotiating a new partnership with the EU," he said.

On Friday, Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, and Baroness Smith, shadow leader of the House of Lords, wrote to the Prime Minister urging her to "reflect and reconsider on the overwhelming case to act" on the two amendments tabled by peers.

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