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Analysis

The Battle of Brexit

People versus parliament

by Brian Reading in London

Fri 16 Dec 2016

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In Britain’s June referendum, a slim majority of the electorate voted for the country to leave the European Union. No meaningful forecasts were possible during the UK-European Union referendum campaign, since the terms of any possible British exit were not known. A majority of members of the UK parliament supported Remain, and the vote drove a wedge between the people and Westminster. Members of parliament may act either purely as representatives of their constituents, or delegates expressing their own opinions. They have chosen on this occasion to be representatives, voting overwhelmingly on 7 December to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon in March 2017.

The UK Supreme Court’s judgment on whether Article 50 can be triggered without parliament’s approval, which will be delivered in early January, will be a farce. The government’s use of the royal prerogative – a residual executive power formerly exercised by British monarchs – to take action on the referendum result without reference to parliament depends on whether triggering Article 50 is irrevocable. If it is, parliament must be consulted. If not, there is no immediate need to do so. Article 50 says nothing about this. This stipulation of EU law is concerned only with how the divorce settlement is negotiated. It says members who leave and want to get back in are treated in the same way as other applicants. John Kerr, the former diplomat who wrote the terms of Article 50, has said that the article is revocable and that the UK would be able to change its mind during exit negotiations.

The Supreme Court will resolve whether the royal prerogative can trigger Article 50 without parliament’s approval. Both sides have said there is no going back on triggering Article 50. If either side had questioned the revocability of Article 50, the case would inevitably have been brought before the European Court of Justice in an appeal, a process which would take months. Since its irrevocability has been assumed by both sides, the Supreme Court cannot consider it. The judges will probably decide that parliamentary approval is needed to trigger the article.

Parliament did not wait for a ruling. MPs voted by a massive majority on a non-binding motion giving the go-ahead for triggering Article 50 in March 2017. This was always going to be the case. Opposition to Brexit is concentrated in a handful of wealthy urban centres in England, and across much of Scotland. Brexit support is overwhelmingly found in rural areas and less affluent cities. Parliament must repeal the 1972 European Communities Act by which Britain entered the EU (then the European Economic Community), while realpolitik may demand a second referendum when divorce terms are known.

Elsewhere, the EU and euro area are in crisis. Italy and its banks are under great strain in the wake of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s failed constitutional referendum. Anti-establishment parties will be rampant during France and Germany’s 2017 elections. Another European financial crisis is possible, while Donald Trump and proxy wars in the Middle East have added to the maelstrom. The British government’s ambivalence towards the details of Brexit adds further to this geopolitical uncertainty.

Brian Reading was an Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Edward Heath and is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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