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Government setback

UK Supreme Court rules Parliament gets a vote on Brexit

UK Supreme Court rules Parliament gets a vote on Brexit

Britain’s highest court ruled Tuesday that the government cannot formally trigger Brexit proceedings by itself, and must gain the consent of parliament before it begins the process of removing the U.K. from the European Union.

As was widely anticipated, the Supreme Court rejected the government’s argument that Prime Minister Theresa May could use her executive powers to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon – which will formally start negotiations with the EU on extricating Britain from the bloc – and ruled that an Act of Parliament would be required instead. An Act of Parliament requires the approval of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The decision, which sets clear limits on the government’s executive powers, was cheered by many as a victory for parliamentary sovereignty, and seen as a further obstacle for the government’s Brexit ambitions. But while it will compel the government to swiftly introduce emergency legislation to gain parliamentary approval for Brexit, it is unlikely to seriously derail its timetable for the process, much less the outcome itself.

A spokesman for May insisted the government’s plan to trigger Article 50 by the end of March would not be affected by the decision. Hours later, Brexit Secretary David Davis told parliament that the government would introduce legislation “within days” to trigger the process.

The 11-judge panel voted 8-3 in favor of the case brought by businesswoman Gina Miller and hairdresser Deir dos Santos in their legal challenge to the government’s plans. The case, lodged shortly after the June referendum, resulted in a High Court ruling in November that the government needed Parliament’s approval. The government then lodged a fast-track appeal for the Supreme Court to rule on the matter.

Miller, who has been the subject of death threats and harassment for bringing the case, welcomed the decision as having created “legal certainty, based on our democratic process, and provided the legal foundations for the Government to trigger Article 50 in line with our constitution.”

“This ruling today means the 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,” she said in a statement.

Britain’s attorney general, Jeremy Wright, told reporters after the decision that while the government was disappointed, it accepted the court’s ruling.

An anti-EU protestor outside the Supreme Court - photo by Tim Hume

A group of pro-EU protesters outside the Supreme Court in London celebrated the decision. “I believe in parliamentary sovereignty and I’m glad that the judges have vindicated the principle that Parliament make decisions of the magnitude that the country faces,” Richard Kirker told VICE News, adding that he still hoped Brexit could be stopped.

“The prime minister did not have a mandate to steamroll a Brexit through Parliament. The terms of our disengagement must be debated fully after proper scrutiny by parliamentarians, 70 percent of them who stood on a pro-EU platform.”

Edward Spinks, a London theater technician, said he was “not willing to accept Brexit yet” and hoped the ruling would clear the way for Britain to “reassess its position.”

“I think we may well be able to put Article 50 on hold, on chill, for some time until maybe it becomes less legally binding,” he said.

But such hopes are likely to be in vain. The president of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, stressed that the verdict had nothing to do with whether the U.K. should leave the EU.

And although the majority of British MPs were in favor remaining in the EU, there is little apparent political will to attempt to stall the triggering of Article 50, a move which would defy the wishes of the 52 percent of voters who backed Brexit in the referendum.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that his party respected “the will of the British people and will not frustrate the process for invoking Article 50.” He said his party would use the parliamentary vote to attempt to influence the law, to prevent the government from “using Brexit to turn Britain into a bargain-basement tax haven.”

Corbyn has previously spoken of his fears that the government, which has all but confirmed that it seeks a so-called “hard Brexit,” will try to reshape Britain’s economy as a low-corporate tax environment in an attempt to compete with the EU after it leaves.

The court also ruled that there was no need for Parliament to wait for approval from devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland before invoking Article 50. A majority of voters in Northern Ireland and Scotland had voted in last year’s referendum to remain in the European Union, and the prospect of Scottish voters losing EU membership against their wishes has fueled renewed talk of independence north of the border.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said after the Supreme Court ruling that it was becoming “ever clearer” that Scotland needed to rethink its place within the United Kingdom.

“It is becoming clearer by the day that Scotland’s voice is simply not being heard or listened to within the U.K.,” she said in a statement. “The claims about Scotland being an equal partner are being exposed as nothing more than empty rhetoric.”

In a 2014 referendum, 55 percent of Scottish voters voted against Scotland’s independence from the U.K.

Cover: ASSOCIATED PRESS

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