World Europe

Uncertainty over Brexit ratchets back up with court ruling

Models of thought

Tuesday's ruling doesn't derail Prime Minister May's plan to leave the European Union. But it gives Parliament the potential to soften the exit.

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

Like a falling domino, Brexit has unleashed a series of shocks that have left Britain with a serious case of political uncertainty. June’s shock referendum to leave the European Union was followed by the resignation of one prime minister, a bruising battle for another, and splits within the opposition Labour Party.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, who outlined her plans for a so-called “hard Brexit” in a speech last week, was applauded by both sides for the relative clarity she finally brought. But in a landmark decision, Britain's Supreme Court on Tuesday dialed up the doubt again.

It ruled that the British Parliament must vote before Brexit negotiations can officially begin. The decision was expected and won’t undo Brexit. But it could lead to attempts to soften the prime minister's hard Brexit.

That leaves Britons with still fuzzy outlines of what Brexit actually means, what it will look like, and who it will most affect.

“There was a moment [after Ms. May’s speech] where I felt a light kind of sense of, ‘Oh OK, well at least we know, like at least something has been said now and there’s some sort of plan,’ ” says Dan Murphy, a London writer. “And then you sort of stop and think for a moment. There’s not really a plan.”

Brexiteers like Mark Stent, who gathered outside the courthouse Tuesday morning in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, said this ruling would not take Britain backward.

“There’ll be all sorts of people obviously who are going to come in and say … ‘We object to this, we don’t like that, we want to get the best deal,’ ” he says. “It’s just going to make it more painful and more complex, but that’s life, isn’t it?”

Mr. Stent adds confidently: “I voted to leave. And we’re leaving.”

That doesn’t mean Brexiteers support their government. They have panned the justice system for playing politics and trying to derail Brexit with the ruling, and say they are vigilant about any attempts to not see the referendum through to its end.

For David Fischer, a London resident also standing outside the courthouse, the ruling is just “another example of people trying to sort of change the result of the referendum, really.”

May’s speech last week brought more precision than Brits had had since they voted narrowly to leave the EU. She clarified that Britain will seek control over its borders at the expense of access to the EU’s single market – the hard Brexit option.

A sense of direction

The speech brought not relief but a sense of “forward movement” that was taken positively, even among hardcore Remainers, says Xenia Wickett, who heads the US and the Americas Program at Chatham House in London. “Because at least we know what we are getting into, we’re kind of open-eyed about it, and this is what it’s going to look like,” she says.

Tuesday's court ruling has garnered headlines across the globe about whether Parliament could derail May’s plans, and specifically her March 31 timetable to begin the two-year process of leaving the EU. The court ruled, with a majority of 8-to-3, that she cannot use the “royal prerogative” to trigger what’s known as Article 50 without parliamentary approval.

The ruling won't derail Brexit outright. While many politicians in the Parliament supported Remain, including Labour, they’d be charged with undermining democracy if they sought to block the negotiations outright. It does mean that members of Parliament could try to amend the bill to make the contours of Brexit "softer" as the bill passes through both houses of Parliament.

The judges were unanimous that the British government does not have to consult with Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales to move forward, which clears the road for May’s government. (The majority of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland had voted to stay in the EU.) She is expected to introduce a narrow bill to minimize lengthy debates and meet her deadline.

For as much as May’s speech was supposed to “settle something,” it's only divided people further, says Annette Schlosser, a lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Hull. Many Brits are still dizzied, and deeply disappointed, in a political system they see in disarray.

“People feel safe when the system around them is safe, and the system around them is safe when it’s stable and predictable,” she says. “A lot of people are very wary of believing what politicians say.” That means more uncertainty, especially for those whose status remains unclear.

Europeans now foreigners? 

Brexit “strikes at the heart of my identity,” says Ralf Martin, an economics professor at Imperial College London and a German who has lived in Britain for 17 years. “I feel very much as a European and not a German,” he says. So he abhors a future home in which he suddenly feels like a foreigner.

“Even though she’s now going for a ‘hard Brexit,’ there’s nothing that’s made the situation of Europeans living here any clearer,” he says.

Mr. Murphy, the London writer, spent two years interviewing hundreds of residents of Jaywick Sands, Essex, to write his play “Carry on Jaywick,” about identity in an iconic seaside town that’s fallen on hard times. Every district in Essex voted for Brexit, so he is intimately familiar with local sentiments and how Leave politicians appealed to that.

“They found a way of talking to this forgotten community,” he says.

If there’s been any reassurance for Murphy, he says it is that he more clearly sees how to channel his energy now that Brexit is going forward. 

"There’s nothing we can do about that. What I’m focusing on now more is getting a government in this country who I can believe in and who I think will work in the best interests for the British public as a whole," he says. "Someone needs to be really questioning the Conservatives and Theresa May on all of the decisions they’re making, because these are massive decisions.”

– Sara Miller Llana reported from Paris.