There is a paradox at the centre of the great Brexit High Court case. The applicants demanding a parliamentary vote on leaving the EU assert the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – yet to gain their point they have to prove a piece of parliamentary legislation can be overthrown at the whim and say-so of the Prime Minister – by issuing her EU exit notification under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
But Brexit cannot occur in any effective form without Parliament’s clear and overt agreement – enshrined in legislation. A pro-EU Parliament is in a powerful position, but Theresa May and her Three Brexiteers are not rushing to inform MPs and Peers of the strength of their hand.
The point is that the European Communities Act 1972 is a piece of sovereign legislation – and it will remain intact after the Article 50 notification goes out – and even after Britain leaves the EU if Parliament decides to leave it there. If Parliament says so, it will remain good law, actionable in the British courts and indeed in the Court of Justice of the European Union.
Mrs May can issue her Article 50 notice under Royal prerogative, break with the EU if she wants, but the legislation stays in place – forever, if that is what Parliament wants. Furthermore it can continue to be effective law for as long as the EU continues to exist if that is the will of Parliament. Britain could be outside the EU – yet governed by its treaties, laws, Court of Justice decisions. It could all continue to apply and the UK courts will (or should) apply it insofar as it is practical to do so.
That is because, to hammer home the point, Parliament is sovereign – and the meaning of parliamentary sovereignty is that British courts will recognise the legislation that passes through Parliament and is signed into law by the Monarch (see Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway Company v John Wauchope).
Now, Mrs May has offered a Great Repeal Bill so Parliament can sweep aside the ECA – but she hasn’t pointed out that Parliament need not sweep it aside at all if it doesn’t want to (otherwise why have a “repeal” Act?). If Parliament wants Britain to be governed by EU law it can be. Which puts Parliament in a powerful position to amend the ECA (via the Great “Repeal” Bill) to dictate the nature of Britain’s continuing relationship with the EU – soft Brexit, hard Brexit, European Economic Area membership or some other system. Or it can leave Britain in the, admittedly anomalous position, of being a sovereign nation governed in part by foreign law. Read the rest of this entry