I think it is fair to say that no single article of the Lisbon Treaty has received as much media attention as the now-notorious Article 50 has been subjected to since the British people voted to leave the European Union on the 23rd June. Article 50 loosely describes the process by which any member state may leave the EU – “any member state may decide to withdraw from the union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements”. This decision, and the make-up of the new agreements, must then be approved by a qualified majority of the EU or the nation faces an exit with an undetermined relationship with the EU unless every member agrees to extend the negotiations.
The “constitutional requirements” that the government must meet in order to trigger Article 50 have been the source of heated debate within Parliament. Theresa May reiterated at the Conservative Party Conference that “Brexit means Brexit” and stated that Article 50 will be triggered by the end of March. With last week’s high court ruling that Parliament must be given a vote on Brexit, those plans now lie in tatters. The government may have immediately confirmed that it plans on appealing the decision to the Supreme Court but that appeal is unlikely to be heard before the beginning of December at the earliest.
The Lord Chief Justice reaffirmed one of the longest standing principles in British law – parliament is sovereign and the government cannot enforce its will on the houses, even with the mandate afforded to them by the referendum. Put simply, laws and statutes conferring rights on the people, passed by an act of parliament, cannot be removed without parliament voting to do so. There is a certain element of irony in the fact that those arguing for Britain to leave the EU in order for Parliament to regain the sovereignty that it had never truly relinquished, were hoping the government would be able to bulldoze Article 50 through without Parliamentary input.
The divisive nature of the referendum has certainly not been placated by the result it brought and, indeed, many have simply refused to accept it; they view today’s ruling as a victory – a continuation of the erosion of the confidence in the leave vote that has occurred as the pound has crumbled. Leavers point to a surprising bump to GDP growth forecasts for the next year as signs that Britain can and will be better for leaving the EU but remainers prefer to focus on the bleak, long term predictions for economic growth and expected inflation that the weakening of the pound is likely to cause.
However, the fact of the matter is that the High Court’s decision is a victory for both sides. Remainers who argue that Theresa May cannot push through a hasty, consultation free Brexit and the leavers who argued that parliamentary sovereignty must not only be protected but strengthened, can take satisfaction in a decision that does both.
Of course, no victor can be declared without a loser trailing in their wake and that loser will most likely be the economy. Already plagued by the uncertainty that the referendum created, the economy is now facing an extended period without, at least, the clarity that May’s forceful triggering would have provided. Britain now faces months, possibly years, of uncertainty as to whether Parliament will be able to reach an agreement that will pass both houses before it has to overcome European scrutiny. The bounce the pound witnessed the morning of the High Court decision evidences the volatility that Brexit Britain faces.
Britain is now confronted by a period of hard fought negotiations in Parliament, clashes with the EU that could result in Britain having to fall back on the standard World Trade Organisation trade agreements that would weaken its position for both importing and exporting goods and services, as well as the possibility of a snap election within the year.
Whatever happens, Britain must endure its most historically significant period since World War Two.