LONDON: The British government must win parliament’s approval before starting talks to leave the EU, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, in a landmark judgement that also said regional lawmakers had no say.
While the ruling is a blow to Prime Minister Theresa May, the government insisted it would do “nothing” to change the timetable for triggering Article 50 — the formal procedure for leaving the EU — by the end of March at the latest.
But 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.
“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 told a packed courtroom in London.
He said a majority of the 11 judges had 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 consulted.
The government had argued that it enjoyed executive powers to withdraw from international treaties.
Lawmakers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have no say in the process, however, the judges said, in a setback for Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
SNP leader Sturgeon 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.
Northern Ireland also voted against Brexit.
“UK ministers are not legally compelled to consult the devolved legislatures… Relations with the EU are a matter for the UK government,” Neuberger said.
‘Parliament must deliver’
Attorney General Jeremy Wright said the government was “disappointed” but the ruling was widely expected and draft legislation is already being prepared in order to meet May’s Brexit timetable.
Brexit minister David Davis will address MPs later on Tuesday to provide details.
“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.”
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”.
Tuesday’s decision follows a High Court ruling against the government in November, in a case which attracted protests, as well as death threats and racist taunts against Miller.
“I have been shocked by the levels of personal abuse I have received from many quarters,” the 51-year-old businesswoman said outside court.
She said people in power should be “much quicker” in condemning this abuse.
Anger was also directed at the High Court judges, with one newspaper branding them “Enemies of the People”.
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 be able 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 but some parliamentarians are concerned that this could come at the last minute and effectively give them no choice but to approve.