In a historic resolution, which may complicate things to the government of Theresa May, the British Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday morning that Parliament must approve the activation of Brexit negotiations with the European Union.
The decision gives the deputies the possibility to amend and obstruct the plans of the prime minister to achieve a clean Brexit, which will completely take the UK out of the single market to regain full control over immigration.
The Government claimed its right to use the royal prerogative – which allows the Executive to take certain decisions on behalf of the Crown without consulting Parliament – to activate Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which opens a two-year divorce period to leave the European Union.
But a number of citizens, led by City Executive Gina Miller, argue that the negotiation of the Brexit requires parliamentary approval, since Brexit will end the British rights that have been guaranteed by the Parliament itself.
This has been confirmed by the Supreme Court, which recognizes in its ruling the validity of the royal prerogative but warns that it can not be used to change laws, for which only Parliament is sovereign.
The court, however, rejects that the Government should have the consent of the legislative chambers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to invoke article 50.
“Relations with the EU and other issues of international politics are reserved for Parliament and the Government, and not for autonomous institutions,” the ruling says.
This possibility threatened to put even more obstacles in the way, especially after the institutional crisis in Northern Ireland, following the resignation of its deputy prime minister, Martin McGuinness.
Outside the courtroom, Attorney General Jeremy Wright has acknowledged that the government is “disappointed” by the court’s ruling. “But we live in a country where everyone, including the government, is under the rule of law,” he said, adding that the executive will “comply” with the ruling.
But Justice, warned Wright, has not spoken about the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU, something that “citizens have already decided in a referendum.”
“The British people voted to leave the EU and the government will enforce that verdict by activating Article 50 before the end of March, as planned. Today’s ruling does not change that in any way,” a spokeswoman for Downing Street explains.
“It is important to remember that Parliament supported the referendum by a margin of six to one and has already indicated its support to continue the exit process with the timetable we have established. We respect the decision of the Supreme Court and we will present our next steps in The Parliament shortly,” he added.
“Only Parliament can guarantee rights to the British and only Parliament can remove them,” said Gina Miller after hearing the ruling.
“There is no doubt Brexit is the most divisive issue of this generation, but this process is legal rather than political,” added Miller, who last year reported that she had received death threats and online abuses as a result of her initiative.
“I am astonished at the level of personal abuse I have received just because I raise a legitimate question,” she denounced this morning, after learning of the decision.
The British High Court upheld the plaintiffs case in the first instance on 4 November, and the Government appealed to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the country, which has now ruled on the case again, this time in a final judgment.
Reactions to the ruling in the first instance showed the severity of the fracture that divided the country since last June 23 when the British decided to leave the EU, by 52% to 48%.
But there is no doubt that the ruling of the Supreme, although the Government practically took for granted that would be contrary to its interests, constitutes an important defeat for May.
The prime minister must now submit a bill that will be sent to parliamentary scrutiny. Brexit Minister David Davis is scheduled to speak at noon in the House of Commons to announce plans by the Government that, according to various sources, go through to publish the bill later this week.
The intention of the Government, according to British media, is to write a text as short and harmless as possible to prevent Members from filling in the legislative process and to adjust May’s schedule, which has promised to activate Article 50.
But, according to The Guardian, lawyers within the government have advised the prime minister not to write too faintly to open the door to further legal challenges in the future.
In fact, the origin of this legal battle, as Miller herself has acknowledged, is in the poor drafting of the original referendum bill.
The ruling of the Supreme is known less than a week after the prime minister presented in London the main lines of her vision of the breakup with the EU.
May made it clear that she is pursuing a radical exit that will leave the country completely out of the single market, the world’s largest free trade bloc, as the only way to regain control over borders and to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
The Brexit was above all, in the interpretation of the Prime Minister, a vote to regain control of immigration, and that will be the objective that guides the Government in its negotiations.
Although most of the deputies oppose the hard line in the rupture with the EU defended by May, no one expects that they use the power that the Supreme has confirmed to them today to block the Brexit completely, betraying the desire of the British expressed in the referendum. What they can do is to, through parliamentary scrutiny, try to push the government towards a less dramatic exit.
Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn has confirmed that the main opposition party “will not frustrate the invocation of Article 50 but will introduce amendments.” But some of his deputies, including members of his Cabinet in the shadow, plan to defy his orders, which would unleash a battle within the Labor Party.
The British pound reached its annual high against the dollar yesterday, partly anticipating a Supreme Court ruling as it has been known this morning. Any move away from a hard Brexit tends to stimulate markets.
Analysts do not rule out more rises, although part of the effect of a ruling that was practically taken for granted has already been assimilated.