Only a vote in parliament can trigger Article 50 say constitutional experts

Brexit is not going to happen any time soon.

If it happens at all.

It seems according to constitutional law experts that any government with any Prime Minister will need a vote in parliament to give authority to an Article 50 notification of intention to withdraw from the EU. Once triggered, withdrawal is inevitable and time-bound. But there is no majority in the current parliament for leaving. And it could be the best part of a year before such a vote in parliament can even be held. For any chance of such a vote being passed it will need a General Election fought on precisely such a question and that the party or parties in favour of an exit win such an election. But it is also possible that such a vote can not, in the reasonable future, be passed.

A new report from Nick Barber, a fellow at Trinity College, Oxford, Tom Hickman, a barrister at Blackstone Chambers and reader at University College, London, and Jeff King, a senior law lecturer at UC, write for the UK Constitutional Law Association:

In this post we argue that as a matter of domestic constitutional law, the Prime Minister is unable to issue a declaration under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – triggering our withdrawal from the European Union – without having been first authorised to do so by an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament.  Were he to attempt to do so before such a statute was passed, the declaration would be legally ineffective as a matter of domestic law and it would also fail to comply with the requirements of Article 50 itself.

There are a number of overlapping reasons for this. They range from the general to the specific. At the most general, our democracy is a parliamentary democracy, and it is Parliament, not the Government, that has the final say about the implications of the referendum, the timing of an Article 50 our membership of the Union, and the rights of British citizens that flow from that membership. More specifically, the terms and the object and purpose of the European Communities Act 1972 also support the correctness of the legal position set out above.

The authors argue that a Prime Minister and his government alone cannot trigger Article 50 without the explicit authority of a parliamentary vote. David Cameron’s resignation statement where he said it is right that this new Prime Minister takes the decision about when to trigger Article 50 and start the formal and legal process of leaving the EU” does not specify the legal authority under which a Prime Minister alone could make the call:

The Prime Minster did not specify the legal authority under which he believed he or his successors might invoke Article 50, but the typical answer will be obvious to constitutional lawyers: it is the royal prerogative, a collection of executive powers held by the Crown since medieval times, that exist unsupported by statute. …… 

One of the earliest limits on the prerogative was that it could not be used to undermine statutes; where the two are in tension, statute beats prerogative.  In one of the seminal cases of the common law, The Case of Proclamations,(1610) 12 Co. Rep. 74 Sir Edward Coke declared:

“..the King by his proclamation… cannot change any part of the common law, or statute law, or the customs of the realm…”

A more recent statement of this principle can be found in the Fire Brigades Union Case[1995] 2 AC 513 in 1995, where Lord Browne-Wilkinson stated that:

“…it would be most surprising if, at the present day, prerogative powers could be validly exercised by the executive so as to frustrate the will of Parliament as expressed in a statute and, to an extent, to pre-empt the decision of Parliament whether or not to continue with the statutory scheme…”

…… The wider principle is that it is not open to Government to turn a statute into what is in substance a dead letter by exercise of the prerogative powers; and that it is not open to the Government to act in a way which cuts across the object and purpose of an existing statute. In our view the wider principle correctly states the law and is particularly apt here, as we are concerned with a constitutional statute upon which an extensive system of rights is founded.

They conclude

Our analysis leads to the possibility that the process of extraction from the EU could be a very long one indeed, potentially even taking many years to come about. Of course, the EU Member States have made clear that they will only negotiate once the Article 50 exit provisions have been triggered and are pressing the UK to pull the trigger “as soon as possible”. It is also clear that uncertainty is itself undesirable. But uncertainty needs to be weighed against other imperatives, such as the need to comply with the UK’s constitutional requirements and the need to ensure that Brexit is effected consistently with the national interest. A quick pull of the Article 50 trigger is unlikely to be feasible under the UK’s constitutional arrangements and may well not be desirable for any UK Government or Parliament, even one committed to eventual withdrawal from the EU.

Brexit is the most important decision that has faced the United Kingdom in a generation and it has massive constitutional and economic ramifications. In our constitution, Parliament gets to make this decision, not the Prime Minister.

Nick Barber, Fellow, Trinity College Oxford.

Tom Hickman, Reader, UCL and barrister at Blackstone Chambers

Jeff King, Senior Lecturer in Law, UCL

Citation: N. Barber, T. Hickman and J. King, ‘Pulling the Article 50 ‘Trigger’: Parliament’s Indispensable Role’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (27th Jun 2016) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/)

It seems to me that whether Brexit is initiated or not (and therefore happens or not) is entirely dependent upon a majority vote in parliament.

(It occurs to me that if Nicola Sturgeon wants to postpone, if not block, Brexit she should get the European Court of Justice to rule on whether or not a parliamentary vote is needed to give authority to a government to invoke Article 50. Even EU bureaucrats can not quibble with that).


 

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