You might think so from reports from the usual quarters, including the Grauniad in a piece, which even by the low standards of legal waffle, is utterly devoid of anything approaching a reasoned legal argument. But from their point of view perhaps, job done.
However, some heavyweight lawyers have weighed in with an opinion piece providing some arguments that Brexit would only be lawful if Parliament approved it. And you can imagine their concern that the clearly expressed will of the electorate might be ignored, why the BBC has even picked up this article, letting it be more widely known.
‘…we argue that as a matter of domestic constitutional law, the Prime Minister is unable to issue a declaration under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – triggering our withdrawal from the European Union – without having been first authorised to do so by an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament. Were he to attempt to do so before such a statute was passed, the declaration would be legally ineffective as a matter of domestic law and it would also fail to comply with the requirements of Article 50 itself.’
So that was all a waste of time then, and Mr Cameron has resigned for no good reason (from his pov), I hear no one say.
Let’s look at this a bit, (btw my answer is ‘No’).
Article 50 – The relevant provisions of Article 50 read as follows:
1 Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
2 A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.
3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
Article 50 is part of the Lisbon Treaty, and it is enshrined in law by an Act of Parliament (this Treaty was the one that Mr Cameron gave us that ‘cast-iron’ guarantee of a referendum on, until is was ratified, when it was ‘too late’ to have a referendum.)
Looking at 1, this seems to me to leave the decision to withdraw to the member state, and for it not to be a matter for the EU, and nothing more. If a member state decides to leave, it need only follow its own requirements, i.e. the EU does not presume to over-ride any such mechanism, fair enough, and the decision itself must be lawful, lest a would-be dictator seeks to rush out of the EU on the way to mimicking Belarus.
2 sets out the mechanism for the departing State to notify the European Council. Nothing fancy there, a verbal statement could do it, but a handwritten letter would be polite. “Dear Donald, We are ducking out of the European Union in accordance with the terms of Article 50, this letter is our formal notification thereof, Chauzinho, signed ….”. And then a negotiation starts.
Looking at 3, the Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question etc. from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement (whenever that might be) or, failing that, 2 years after the notification, unless the European Council unanimously* decides to extend this period (in agreement with the departing state)
(*Pay attention folks, 50 (3) crops up below.)
So if nothing is agreed to extend time, or if we don’t leave earlier, exit is automatic after 2 years. Perhaps the Chilcott committee will find a new task for the next decade or so, negotiating Brexit?
The problem, it seems, is that the lawyers think that the Royal Prerogative is constrained by law, in that the Sovereign (on the advice of her Ministers) can do no wrong, but also cannot do anything that is unlawful such as exercising her Prerogative when Parliament has provided for it to be exercised in a particular way or with prior Parliamentary approval, in which case it is no Prerogative at all, of course.
All very well, but the exercising of Article 50 is simply doing what ‘it says on the tin’, the right to withdraw is inherent in the Treaty, so exercising a right provided for in the Treaty is not (well it seems fairly obvious to me anyway) a breach of the Treaty or of EU law. One might ask, if Article 50 does not allow for withdrawal, what on Earth does it provide for?
But of course, it goes much deeper than that, the exercise of the Prerogative is constrained by Parliament and the law. The first line of attack is to argue that Parliament has to approve a decision to leave the EU.
Is this found in 50 (1) “…in accordance with its own constitutional requirements…” Of course, the UK has no written constitution (moan the Lefties), but the referendum was held by authority of an Act of Parliament, and it was only ever ‘advisory’, i.e. it was legally a pointless exercise, as the outcome mandated nothing, whereas a 2011 Referendum did mandate a change in the law in the event of approval to changes in the voting system, by delegated legislation within the Act. So the Act that provided for this Referendum could have provided for a mechanism for its implementation by its own provisions mandating the Prime Minister to trigger article 50 in the event of ‘Leave’ prevailing, or by requiring another Act (which is necessarily subject to Parliament’s will) to trigger Article 50. The Prime Minister may ignore this Referendum outcome completely, of that there is no legal doubt.
But then again, Parliament has constrained the power of the executive (i.e. the Crown as advised) in relation to treaties. Step forward The European Union Act 2011. This Act is a sort of ‘entrenching’ Act, which sets out various obstacles to Treaty modifications without a referendum in the UK, see section 4.
4 Cases where treaty or Article 48(6) decision attracts a referendum
(1) Subject to subsection (4), a treaty or an Article 48(6) decision falls within this section if it involves one or more of the following—
(a) the extension of the objectives of the EU as set out in Article 3 of TEU;
(b) the conferring on the EU of a new exclusive competence;
(c) the extension of an exclusive competence of the EU;
(d) the conferring on the EU of a new competence shared with the member States;
(e) the extension of any competence of the EU that is shared with the member States;
(f) the extension of the competence of the EU in relation to—
(i) the co-ordination of economic and employment policies, or
(ii) common foreign and security policy;
(g) the conferring on the EU of a new competence to carry out actions to support, co-ordinate or supplement the actions of member States;
(h) the extension of a supporting, co-ordinating or supplementing competence of the EU;
(i) the conferring on an EU institution or body of power to impose a requirement or obligation on the United Kingdom, or the removal of any limitation on any such power of an EU institution or body;
(j) the conferring on an EU institution or body of new or extended power to impose sanctions on the United Kingdom;
(k) any amendment of a provision listed in Schedule 1 that removes a requirement that anything should be done unanimously, by consensus or by common accord;
(l) any amendment of Article 31(2) of TEU (decisions relating to common foreign and security policy to which qualified majority voting applies) that removes or amends the provision enabling a member of the Council to oppose the adoption of a decision to be taken by qualified majority voting;
(m) any amendment of any of the provisions specified in subsection (3) that removes or amends the provision enabling a member of the Council, in relation to a draft legislative act, to ensure the suspension of the ordinary legislative procedure.
Zzzzz…. But nowhere in this Act has Parliament put any brake on the exercise of the notification to leave the EU under Article 50! That right is left untouched, yet it could have been constrained. Furthermore, this Act requires a referendum on certain decisions by Ministers (i.e. the Crown) by Section 6.
6 Decisions requiring approval by Act and by referendum
(1) A Minister of the Crown may not vote in favour of or otherwise support a decision to which this subsection applies unless—
(a) the draft decision is approved by Act of Parliament, and
(b) the referendum condition is met.
(2) Where the European Council has recommended to the member States the adoption of a decision under Article 42(2) of TEU in relation to a common EU defence, a Minister of the Crown may not notify the European Council that the decision is adopted by the United Kingdom unless—
(a) the decision is approved by Act of Parliament, and
(b) the referendum condition is met.
(3) A Minister of the Crown may not give a notification under Article 4 of Protocol (No. 21) on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice annexed to TEU and TFEU which relates to participation by the United Kingdom in a European Public Prosecutor’s Office or an extension of the powers of that Office unless—
(a) the notification has been approved by Act of Parliament, and
(b) the referendum condition is met.
(4) The referendum condition is that set out in section 3(2), with references to a decision being read for the purposes of subsection (1) as references to a draft decision and for the purposes of subsection (3) as references to a notification….
Try an espresso to stay with me, but furthermore, the Schedule to this Act sets out ‘Treaty provisions where amendment removing need for unanimity, consensus or common accord would attract referendum’.
And here we find, at the bottom, Article 50 (3):
Article 7(2) (determination by European Council of existence of serious and persistent breach by member State of values referred to in Article 2).
Article 14(2) (composition of European Parliament).
Article 15(4) (decisions of European Council require consensus).
Article 17(5) (number of, and system for appointing, Commissioners).
Article 19(2) (appointment of Judges and Advocates-General of European Court of Justice).
Article 22(1) (identification of strategic interests and objectives of the EU).
Chapter 2 of Title V (specific provisions on the common foreign and security policy).
Article 48(3), (4), (6) and (7) (treaty revision procedures).
Article 49 (application for EU membership).
Article 50(3) (decision of European Council extending time during which treaties apply to state withdrawing from EU).
So Parliament has set limits on what Ministers of the Crown may do in respect of the Lisbon Treaty, and has said nothing at all about the exercise of the right to withdraw requiring Parliamentary approval, it has left this area alone. Yet, if the UK were to partake in a decision to change the requirement for unanimity from the European Council when extending time during which the withdrawal mechanism applies to a departing state, this would require a referendum.
Of course, triggering Article 50 and Brexit will still leave Section 2 (2) of the European Communities Act 1972 intact and in force, maintaining the supremacy of EU law in the UK after Brexit, because nothing in Article 50 dis-applying the Treaties would necessarily repeal that section of UK law. But that would leave a post-Brexit Parliament in the odd position of being bound by a predecessor Parliament’s decision to make EU law supreme and limit its power to amend EU law. Would anyone suggest that such a situation would last?
The final arguments against Brexit may well be that to leave the EU is a breach of someone’s Human Rights, and is therefore void or should be stopped, or, alternatively that the decision to leave is a breach of EU law and therefore void.
But of course, by the very nature of the EU, the UK’s courts, even if they were minded to grant an injunction or interdict against notification of Brexit (making it void) cannot constrain the EU or stop it from doing what it wishes, such as showing us the door.
UPDATE 19072016: Court challenge to be heard in the High Court of England and Wales in October 2016.