British Prime Minister Theresa May / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER
The British government must win parliament’s approval before starting talks to leave the EU, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, in a landmark judgement and setback for Prime Minister Theresa May.
The legal case has revived divisions within British society after last June’s referendum which saw 52 percent vote to leave the EU after a bitter campaign that split the country.
May had wanted to start the process of leaving the European Union — invoking Article 50 of the treaty — without a vote in parliament, but she failed to overturn a High Court ruling that said MPs must be consulted.
“The Supreme Court rules that the government cannot trigger Article 50 without an act of parliament authorising it to do so,” Supreme Court president David Neuberger said in London.
A majority of the 11 judges agreed that withdrawing from the EU meant there would have to be changes to Britain’s domestic laws, and therefore national parliament had to be involved, he said.
The government, which lost the original case in November, had argued that it enjoyed executive powers to withdraw from international treaties.
While Tuesday’s ruling was a blow to the prime minister, the judges also said lawmakers in semi-autonomous Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales had no legal right to be consulted in the process.
May’s government insisted “nothing” would change the timetable for starting the formal procedure for leaving the EU by the end of March and promised draft legislation “within days”.
The main opposition Labour party and the Scottish National Party (SNP) have said they will table amendments to any government legislation to start Brexit, which could potentially cause a delay.
Brexit minister David Davis defiantly said that the government would put “straightforward” legislation authorising May to initiate Brexit “swiftly”.
“I trust no-one will seek to make it a vehicle for attempts to thwart the will of the people or frustrate or delay the process,” he warned MPs.
“There can be no turning back. The point of no return was passed on June 23 last year,” he said, referring to the referendum in which 52 percent of voters opted to leave the EU.
The decision that devolved parliaments need not be consulted was a particular blow for Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
The SNP leader has argued that since Scotland voted to stay in the EU, it should not be taken out “against its will” and has warned it is “very likely” she will call a referendum on independence.
Attorney General Jeremy Wright said the government was “disappointed” but the ruling was widely expected.
“Supreme Court has spoken. Now parliament must deliver will of the people — we will trigger A50 by the end of March. Forward we go!” Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a leading Brexit advocate during the referendum campaign, said on Twitter.
The lead claimant, investment fund manager Gina Miller, said: “No prime minister, no government can expect to be unanswerable or unchallenged.”
The original High Court case in November attracted protests, as well as death threats and racist taunts against Miller.
She added: “Today’s decision has created legal certainty based on our democratic process.”
David Greene, a lawyer for another claimant, hairdresser Deir Dos Santos, hailed the ruling as a “victory for democracy and the rule of law”.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party would not “frustrate” the process for invoking Article 50 but would seek to amend the legislation.
“Labour is demanding a plan from the government to ensure it is accountable to parliament throughout the negotiations and a meaningful vote to ensure the final deal is given parliamentary approval,” he said.
The party wants provisions included in the bill urging the government to negotiate tariff-free access to the EU’s single market and agree to abide by EU-level protection of workers’ rights.
May has said she wants to leave the single market in order to restrict immigration and negotiate a new customs deal with the EU, but will seek “maximum possible access” for British companies.
She has also said Britain will incorporate all existing EU legislation and then parliament will get to choose which laws to adopt, repeal or amend.
May has promised to give both Houses of Parliament a vote on the final deal.