A ruling by England’s High Court has called into question whether the government of the United Kingdom will follow through on the results of the Brexit referendum and actually withdraw from the European Union. The High Court ruled that the British government could not invoke Article 50 of the EU Lisbon Treaty, which governs separation from the EU, without a vote of approval in Parliament.
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, who was in favor of the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union but says she is now committed to Brexit and making the UK a “fully-independent, sovereign country” again, intends to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, established in 2005. May telephoned the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, and other EU leaders insisting her government was working to invoke Article 50 by next March. The EU and the UK will have two years from the day Article 50 is invoked to negotiate a British withdrawal from the European Union before an automatic withdrawal kicks in.
The European Union, started as a common market, has become the most complex supra-national government in world history. While its foundations are the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital within its broader borders, a vast political bureaucracy has also been built.
If May loses the appeals, her government will have to submit legislation to Parliament. Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister and the Europe spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, indicated his party would try to amend the legislation in order to keep the United Kingdom in the European Union’s single market, and that he’d like to see the public get “a say” on the final deal. Given Article 50 starts a clock on withdrawal, it’s unclear how a second referendum would work. The EU has signaled it will not start Brexit negotiations until the British government invokes Article 50. In order to accommodate a second referendum, the EU would have to indicate that the British government was allowed to go back on Article 50.
The June referendum in which British voters narrowly chose to leave the European Union, was a “consultative” referendum that did not have the force of law. Opponents of the results insist because it was consultative it requires a vote in Parliament before government action. Some members of parliament have suggested a snap election prior to such a vote.
Before the Brexit vote, David Cameron, prime minister at the time, told the House of Commons that a vote to leave meant triggering Article 50 and that “the British people would rightly expect that to start straight away.” While the prime minister, who campaigned for Remain, insisted throughout that the vote was not a referendum on him, he resigned after the Leave campaign won. Some leave campaigners hinted that it was possible to use a Leave vote to renegotiate better terms with the EU without invoking Article 50, but after the vote EU leaders, looking to discourage other populations from making a similar democratic decision, insisted the UK was obliged to invoke Article 50 and that no more renegotiations of membership would take place.
Opponents of Brexit have also pushed the idea that voters made the wrong choice or that in some other way the results didn’t matter. They say a small amount of voters may have changed their mind and point at the slim margin of victory (about 4 points)—this could be a good point. Britain has long had a complex relationship with the EU different from other member states that more easily ceded more of their sovereignty to European institutions. This vote was framed as the end of that dance—either the UK would commit to the European project or it wouldn’t. Under such conditions perhaps it would have been a lot fairer to require a two thirds majority to pass. Consent is important, and if British voters are being asked to make more permanent the ceding of their sovereignty from their Parliament to Brussels, perhaps half or almost half of them saying no is something that should stop such a significant and transformational transaction.