The Supreme Court this week ruled that the Government cannot start the process of the UK’s departure from the European Union without parliamentary approval.
This judgement has come as no surprise to anyone. Indeed, we know that the Government fully expected to lose, which does beg the question as to why the Prime Minister wasted time and taxpayers’ money appealing against the previous High Court judgment, which ruled to the same effect last year.
Contrary to what you may have heard the Supreme Court’s decision does not mean that our exit from the EU is going to be somehow prevented by MPs. There is a clear majority in the UK Parliament for triggering Article 50 and the ruling also made clear that the law does not give devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a veto. We will be leaving the EU. What the Justices have actually done is provide legal clarification of what the Government can and cannot do unilaterally.
The case was fought on the basis that EU law rights conferred on people in the UK by Parliament (through the European Communities Act 1972) could not be taken away by the Government on the long-established principle that the powers of Parliament have constitutional precedence over those of the Government. The Court agreed with this, confirming the importance of parliamentary democracy to stop the Government from imposing its will on any subject, not just Brexit, without the scrutiny of Parliament. This seems appropriate to me: we are a Parliamentary democracy and Parliament, not the Government, should provide its consent for the process of leaving the EU to commence.
Moreover, I think this ruling should clearly please those people who were so concerned about the pre-eminence of Parliament and “taking back control” during the referendum.
In the aftermath of the judgement the Government has said it will be introducing a Bill to trigger Article 50 “within days”. However, in all the furore surrounding Article 50 I think it is important to remember that this is only the very beginning of the process and not by any means the end.
The process of extracting ourselves from the EU is so complex that it will likely go on for many years, possibly decades, and provide multiple opportunities for individuals, political parties and interest groups to argue for different approaches to Brexit and influence the path the Government takes.
Worryingly, the Prime Minister has already suggested that the Government could “change the basis of Britain’s economic model” if they do not get their preferred deal from the EU. As I mentioned last week, given the politics of this Government that will likely mean becoming a country with little in the way of a social safety net and few health and safety protections for workers, while slashing public spending. I don’t believe it is what the majority of Leave voters thought they were voting for. In my view we need a deal that puts jobs and the economy first and protects workers’ rights and environmental protections.
The Supreme Court ruled this week that Parliament, not the Government, has the authority to trigger Article 50 to set off the process of leaving the EU. I don’t think Parliament will stop the invoking of Article 50, however this ruling does reinforce the importance of parliamentary democracy in our country.