World Europe First Look

Britain’s Supreme Court tosses spanner in Brexit plans

Britain’s top court ruled Tuesday that ‘Brexit’ cannot proceed without a parliamentary vote.

Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, leaves Downing Street in London Tuesday. Britain's government must get parliamentary approval before starting the process of leaving the European Union, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, potentially delaying Ms. May's plans to trigger exit negotiations by the end of March.
Victoria Jones/PA/AP | Caption

Britain's Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the nation cannot exit the European Union without parliamentary approval.

The ruling, which upholds a previous decision by the London High Court, presents a further political hurdle for Prime Minister Theresa May, who took over the position from David Cameron following the initial "Brexit" vote. While the decision comes as a political blow for the prime minister and her government, the most dramatic outcome expected is that Parliament now has the ability to delay the process through extended debates.

"The ruling is an embarrassing setback for the prime minister, but it does not threaten to derail Brexit," Frank Langfitt reported from London for NPR. "Ministers of Parliament can delay the bill and debate it, but they can't overturn the June referendum.”

The Supreme Court made clear that Parliament had voted-on and approved the 1972 decision to join the European Union, which subsequently incorporated European Law into British Law. Given that separating from the EU will inevitably remove certain rights from British citizens, the decision to commence such a measure must be approved by the representatives of the populace.

Thus, "the government cannot trigger Article 50 without an act of Parliament authorizing that course," said Supreme Court president David Neuberger, announcing the decision, according to The New York Times.

The June referendum, in which the nation as a whole voted on whether to separate or to remain within the EU, drew support and criticism both internationally and within Britain because of the slim margins by which it passed (52 percent).

Following the referendum, Gina Miller – an investment fund manager – began actively campaigning to reverse the decision, believing that those who voted for Brexit did so without any idea or plan for the future.

For her, the Supreme Court ruling comes as a major victory. In a statement outside of the court she said it shows that "no prime minister, no government, can expect to be unanswerable or unchallenged," as quoted by USA Today. "This ruling today means that MPs we have elected will rightfully have the opportunity to bring their invaluable experience and expertise to bear in helping the government select the best course in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, negotiations that will frame our place in the world and all our destinies to come."

In a speech earlier this month, Prime Minister May had laid out her 12-point strategy for a "hard" withdrawal from the EU, including the March initiation of a two-year, non-negotiable process culminating in a fully separate and independent Britain. Given the recent ruling, she must now wait for Parliament to invoke article 50 – the legislation that will commence the formal severance with Brussels.

For its part, the government in power issued a statement indicating that it was disappointed with the ruling but would comply with the law and do everything necessary to ensure it is implemented:

"The British people voted to leave the EU, and the government will deliver on their verdict – triggering Article 50, as planned, by the end of March. Today's ruling does nothing to change that. It's important to remember that Parliament backed the referendum by a margin of 6 to 1 and has already indicated its support for getting on with the process of exit to the timetable we have set out. We respect the Supreme Court's decision, and will set out our next steps to Parliament shortly," a government spokesperson said.