In today’s ruling of United Kingdom (UK) High Court mandating that the British Parliament must be consulted prior to triggering Article 50 – the legal mechanism to “serve notice” on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU), the Lord Chief Justice The Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd stated his view that “the government does not have power under the Crown’s prerogative to give notice pursuant to Article 50 for the UK to withdraw from the European Union”.
The ruling can be viewed as a defeat for the British Government, who had hitherto argued that the June referendum – in which the British public voted 17,410,742 (51.89%) to 16,141,241 (48.11%) to leave the EU – provided sufficient legal impetus for the commencement of exit talks.
The Government has confirmed that it will appeal the judgment with a court hearing expected next month. Shortly after the ruling, a Downing Street spokesman said that “the country voted to leave the European Union in a referendum approved by Act of Parliament… and the government is determined to respect the result of the referendum”.
The UK higher courts may reverse lower court judgements; however, unless the Supreme Court overturns this ruling, the Government must now consult Parliament about Article 50.
The ruling comes at a difficult moment for Prime Minister Theresa May who, in recent weeks, has faced increased calls from opposition politicians to clarify the precise nature of Britain’s negotiating position and the post-Brexit settlement her administration is seeking. The pro-Remain Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has already demanded the government “bring its negotiating terms to Parliament without delay“, adding that “there must be transparency and accountability to Parliament on the terms of Brexit” while the UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage has raised fears of a “betrayal” of the majority of British voters who endorsed Brexit in June. Today’s ruling will only intensify calls for the government to clarify its position ahead of the March 2017 date when it had previously pledged to trigger Article 50.
Parliament will debate the issue if the ruling is upheld, but debate was already largely expected given such developments as the establishment of the new Department for Exiting the European Union Select Committee. It still remains likely that Parliament will go on to vote to trigger Article 50, whether out of respect for the electorate’s vote, or because of the whip system in which the Conservative Party (who has promised to deliver Brexit) has a majority.
Given all of these countervailing factors, the significance of this ruling should not be overplayed. If upheld, it will certainly add additional uncertainty and debate, but will not necessarily derail the process.
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