The remarkable Government case in the Art 50 litigation

It is now about a week since the hearings concluded in the litigation, before the High Court, on whether the UK Government can trigger Art 50 TEU, or whether instead an Act of Parliament is required. The transcript of the hearing makes for fascinating reading. We will have to see what the judges decide, but I cannot refrain from making the point that the Government’s case is weak. Government lawyers are of course confined in what they can argue, and what not, by what their client, i.e. politics, wants. It seems like the client has not dealt them a good hand. For the Government’s case is built around a set of propositions which are in huge tension with one another. They are:

  1. The 2015 Referendum Act, which organised the referendum, did not confer on the Government the power to trigger Art 50. At most, it did not disturb a pre-existing power (the Royal Prerogative).
  2. The Art 50 notification cannot be revoked. In the words of Lord Pannick QC, once the bullet has left the gun it will definitely hit the target: exit after 2 years, or at such time as the withdrawal agreement enters into force.
  3. The Government can make treaties and withdraw from them. But for there to be effect in domestic law of either the making a treaty, or withdrawing from it, Parliament must be involved. This last proposition is confirmed in the following, fascinating exchange between the Lord Chief Justice and the Attorney-General, acting for the Government:

“THE LORD CHIEF JUSTICE: I think, sorry, if I understood my Lord’s question, you accept that if the government wanted to amend the treaties or withdraw from them so that effect was given to withdrawal in domestic law, there would have to be an Act of Parliament.

THE ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes.

THE LORD CHIEF JUSTICE: Whether it is amending or withdrawing, it doesn’t make any difference.

THE ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes.

THE LORD CHIEF JUSTICE: I think that was the point. It is the effectiveness in domestic law. There is no difference between amending and withdrawing, you have to have a statute?

THE ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes, in order for there to be an effect in domestic law we accept that Parliament’s involvement would be necessary.”

At the end of this exchange the Attorney-General confirms that Parliament’s involvement would be necessary to give domestic effect to Brexit. In other words, the Government could negotiate a withdrawal agreement, but such an agreement could take effect in UK law (much like the conclusion of a new treaty) only if Parliament legislated to such effect. But this is contradicted by proposition (2). That proposition accepts that, once the trigger has been pulled, withdrawal is outside the Government’s control. It will happen, whether the Parliament legislates or not. Crucially, this includes the effect in domestic law. The UK cannot, in its domestic law, keep all extinguished EU membership rights and obligations alive. That is so, quite simply, because at least some of those rights and obligations require membership, and the cooperation of the EU institutions and other Member States. Just one example: UK citizens will no longer be able to vote for the European Parliament, after withdrawal, and it is wholly irrelevant whether the UK Parliament leaves such a right on its statute book or not.

In the Government’s case withdrawal is therefore completely different from the law and practice of negotiating and approving new EU Treaties (or amendments to them) – contrary to what it claims. That law and practice is such that a new Treaty cannot enter into force unless it has been ratified by each member State in accordance with its constitutional requirements (i.e. approved by its parliament): see Art 48 TEU (there is a simplified revision procedure, but even that allows national parliaments to block). The logic is that the EU does not finally agree new rights and obligations until all national parliaments have approved them, and incorporated them into domestic law. So the logic of the prerogative not interfering with domestic legislation is fully respected for the negotiation of new treaties. But for withdrawal the Attorney General effectively argues the reverse: the UK Government can decide on withdrawal, including its inescapable domestic effect, and it doesn’t need Parliament’s approval.

Proposition (1) is relevant because it means that the Government is not arguing that the 2015 Referendum Act conferred a power on it to give effect to a negative referendum result, by triggering Art 50. So Parliament never authorised the triggering, and it cannot, once the bullet has left, undo withdrawal, either at the international plane or at the domestic level.

I cannot see how these three propositions could be reconciled. The most remarkable one, from the perspective of the Government’s case, is the second. If the Government argued that the Brexit bullet can be pulled back to the gun – in other words that the UK Government could always revoke the notification – there would be a much stronger case for the exercise of the prerogative, as many have noted. Parliament could then, at any stage of the negotiations, force the Government to withdraw from withdrawal. But for political reasons the Government doesn’t argue this. The big question looming over the litigation is whether the courts can simply assume that the Art 50 notification is irrevocable, when that point is so critical.

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