The rallying cry of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union was that it was time for the country’s own national institutions to seize power from the unaccountable courts and parliaments across the Channel. So there is some irony in the fact that, on November 3rd, Brexiteers spluttered with indignation when three British judges, sitting in the High Court in London, ruled that under English law the business of triggering Brexit should fall to Britain’s sovereign Parliament, rather than the government alone.
The haziness of Britain’s unwritten constitution contributes to the confusion around the ruling (see article). In fact, the High Court’s judgment may delay Brexit by a few weeks, but it does not imperil it. If the government loses its appeal in the Supreme Court next month it will have to seek Parliament’s approval before triggering Article 50 of the EU treaty, the legal route to Brexit. Theoretically, MPs could vote it down, but they won’t: although most would prefer to remain, they will not ignore the referendum held in June, which resulted in a clear vote to leave.
Nor should they. But the case provides an opportunity for Parliament to assert its role in the Brexit negotiations, from which it has so far been marginalised by the government (see article). Untangling Britain from Europe will be a multi-year process involving hundreds of difficult choices, not a quick separation whose instructions were provided by the referendum’s single-word verdict. The details of the proposed divorce should be thrashed out in public by Britons’ elected representatives, not determined by their unelected prime minister alone and in secret.
The people have spoken. But what did they mean?
The referendum was supposed to resolve Britain’s relationship with Europe once and for all. Yet in laying the In/Out debate to rest, it sparked many more questions. Should Britain seek to stay in the EU’s single market, or its customs union? How much should it pay into the EU budget for the privilege? Should it maintain the free movement of people? What sort of border should it have with Ireland? Countless more puzzles await, on everything from patent protection to space exploration.
The referendum result is no help on any of these matters. Nor are the promises made by Brexiteers during the campaign. Some, such as the notion that Britain could maintain its trading privileges with Europe and simultaneously end the free movement of migrants, are mutually exclusive. Others, like the claim that Britain could take back hundreds of millions of pounds a week from the EU to spend on the National Health Service, were simply untrue.
Theresa May, who voted to remain and then became prime minister when her Brexiteer rivals tripped over their own shoelaces, is presumably formulating answers to these questions. Yet Britons are in the dark as to where she intends to lead them. She has published no plan, nor even a statement of objectives. Her comments suggest that she has chosen to prioritise the control of immigration, even if it means giving up the membership of the single market (she says only that Britain should go on “trading in and operating within” it). This sort of “hard Brexit” is favoured by the keenest Brexiteers. But it is unclear that the public agrees. One recent poll found that most would rather have single-market membership than controls on immigration.
Time to take back control
Trying to read the minds of voters by studying polls or tabloid headlines is the wrong approach. Instead, the path to Brexit should be a matter for transparent public debate. Britain has a body designed for just that purpose. Yet the government has resisted giving Parliament any say in, or even any real oversight of, its strategy. One reason is paranoia about a counter-revolution. Brexiteers see establishment plots everywhere: from the Bank of England, whose governor they have done their best to hound out, to the High Court, whose judges were labelled “enemies of the people” by one hysterical newspaper. Britain must urgently get over the idea that even to discuss the possible versions of Brexit is to challenge the result of the referendum. The vote in June provided no blueprint; all options must be considered.
The other reason the government gives for its secrecy is that it doesn’t want to show its hand in the negotiations: if Britain is to outwit its foes in Brussels, it must keep its strategy under wraps. The parliamentary debate would supposedly give the game away. Yet this misunderstands the task ahead. Negotiating Brexit is not like selling a second-hand car with a dodgy secret under the bonnet. The breaking up of a 40-year legal, political and economic union and the trade talks that will follow should be done in the open. In America, Congress demands a detailed outline of the president’s plans before granting him permission to negotiate trade deals that it promises not to amend. In the EU Brussels is notoriously leaky. Besides, negotiations there do not rely on secret fall-back positions, but a gradual fumbling toward compromise.
Britain did not vote to take back control from Europe only for decisions to be made by a prime minister pretending somehow to channel the will of the people by intuition alone. Parliament is the place for Brexit’s knotty details to be untangled. Those who would deny Britons that right are the real enemies of the people.
Article from the Economist.
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