GEOMETR.IT wsj.com 13.10.2016
LONDON—The main legal challenge over Brexit kicked off in a packed courtroom on Thursday, as pressure mounted on the government to give lawmakers a vote on how the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union will be carried out.
The case marks the highest-profile effort so far from opponents of the Brexit referendum, who argue that though voters chose to leave the bloc, Parliament should have a say in the negotiations on what the future EU-U.K. relationship will look like. In a sign of how the issue has divided the country, noisy protesters on both sides gathered outside the U.K. High Court as proceedings began.
At the heart of case is the question of whether the Conservative-led government has the authority to unilaterally trigger the formal mechanism for leaving the EU, known as Article 50, without prior approval from Parliament.
The complex case—brought by British citizens with the help of some of the U.K.’s top constitutional lawyers—is complicating things for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who has said she plans to invoke Article 50 by the end of March.
Mrs. May has taken a hard line on the terms of the U.K.’s deal with the EU, pledging to prioritize the right to curb immigration over access to the bloc’s tariff-free single market. At a debate called by the opposition Labour Party on Wednesday, lawmakers criticized the government over what they said was its lack of transparency.
If the challenge succeeds, the government could be forced to put forward legislation on formally leaving the EU, giving lawmakers who were opposed to Brexit an opportunity to try to steer the country toward a “softer” exit with more ties to the bloc and a more open immigration policy.
The court could rule next week at the earliest, but legal experts say it is likely to refer the case to the Supreme Court, which would be expected to hear the case before the end of the year.
The case, which combines at least seven private actions brought by individuals who supported Britain’s continued EU membership, underscores the complexities involved in the U.K.’s decision to leave the bloc, as it becomes the first member of the modern EU to do so.
The government says it has the right to leave because of the so-called “royal prerogative,” whereby executive authority is given to ministers so they can govern on the monarch’s behalf.
Lawyers representing the government also say Mrs. May has a responsibility to carry out the wishes of the people.
But the claimants argue that triggering Article 50 without prior parliamentary consent would effectively override the 1972 European Communities Act, which enshrines European law in the U.K. and which the claimants say ensures rights that can only be removed by Parliament.
“My case is that notification is the pulling of the trigger. Once you pull the trigger, the consequence that follows is that the bullet hits the target,” David Pannick, a leading human-rights lawyer representing one of the plaintiffs, told the court.
“The notification has an impact on domestic law. It leads to the whole removal of a series of rights conferred by Parliament—and can’t be reversed—no matter what Parliament may think at a later stage,” Mr. Pannick said.
Spearheading the legal challenge to Brexit is British businesswoman Gina Miller, co-founder of boutique investment firm SCM Private, who has campaigned for transparency in the financial and charity sectors. Hairdresser Deir Dos Santos and a group of unnamed France-based expatriates are co-parties.
The plaintiffs are expected to spend most of Thursday and Friday laying out their case, while the government’s legal team, led by Attorney General Jeremy Wright, is set to respond next week.