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'Brexit' Ruling Reveals Cracks in Britain's Centuries-old Institutions

It remains unclear whether Prime Minister Theresa May's plans or timetable for taking Britain out of the European Union will be altered by the Supreme Court's ruling on Tuesday that she must secure Parliament's approval before beginning the process. Most analysts, even those who opposed "Brexit," as the departure from the bloc is known, doubt that it will.

And Mrs. May had already said in her speech on Brexit last week that Parliament would have a vote on whether to accept the final deal negotiated with the European Union.

But the ruling Tuesday – which included a decision to deny the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislatures a veto in the matter – has brought to the fore some ancient tensions in Britain's democracy, which has somehow made it through the centuries with an unequal union of four nations, an unelected upper house of Parliament and without a written constitution. These tensions may ultimately have far greater impact than a ruling that was widely anticipated.

"There are some fairly serious questions about how the U.K.'s constitutional settlement operates, not least the lack of democracy at the heart of the houses of Parliament," Stephen Gethins, the Scottish National Party's spokesman on Europe in the British Parliament, said in an interview. "All this raises quite substantial questions about the future of the union."

The strongest words of protest arose from the nations of the United Kingdom whose voters opposed Brexit. In Scotland, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said Tuesday that the case for a second referendum on independence was growing ever stronger.

"It's becoming clearer by the day that Scotland's voice is simply not being heard or listened to within the U.K.," Ms. Sturgeon said.

In Northern Ireland, where the fragile 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian conflict is predicated on membership in the European Union and an open border with Ireland, the decision not to give its Parliament a vote risks aggravating the sectarian divide, officials said.

"Brexit will undermine the institutional, constitutional and legal integrity of the Good Friday Agreement," said Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, which represents the Catholic nationalist community in Northern Ireland. "Our stability and economic progress," he said, "are regarded as collateral damage."

In its ruling, which upholds an earlier decision by the High Court in London, the Supreme Court noted that Parliament had approved the 1972 legislation that enabled the country to join the European Union and incorporated European law into British law. Leaving the bloc would take away from British citizens a number of rights that had been granted by the bloc.

As a result, "the government cannot trigger Article 50 without an act of Parliament authorizing that course," David Neuberger, the Supreme Court's president, said in announcing the decision, which was approved, 8 to 3.

Although a majority of lawmakers had campaigned to stay in the European Union before the referendum last year, most political observers said it was unlikely that legislators would reject the will of the voters.

The prime minister's office is expected to submit a tightly worded bill to Parliament as early as this week, and if all goes well Mrs. May will begin a two-year, irreversible process of exit negotiations with the European Union by the end of March.

"There's no going back," David Davis, the British official assigned to oversee the withdrawal, told Parliament later Tuesday. "The point of no return was June 23," he said, referring to the date of the referendum.

That is not going to stop some from trying. The Scottish National Party is likely to vote against the measure, and has vowed to submit 50 "serious and substantive" amendments in an effort to slow the process and, if possible, soften or reverse the outcome.

But with the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, pledging not to stand in the way, and the Conservatives holding a majority in Parliament, Mrs. May is widely expected to prevail.

Some expect a little more pushback in the House of Lords, not enough to stop the bill's passage but possibly enough to delay it, surely enraging the most vocal cheerleaders for Brexit – the tabloid press and English nationalists, from the right wing of the Conservative Party to the U.K. Independence Party.

That the Lords could intervene in the process stems from another ancient quirk of the British political system.

Unelected, overcrowded and with an age profile similar to that of many retirement homes, Britain's upper chamber of Parliament has survived a century of debate over its purpose, while becoming the largest legislative assembly in the world outside of China. Unlike the elected House of Commons, members of the House of Lords are mostly appointed, and many were named by the Labour governments in power from 1997 to 2010. At the least, they could throw sand in the legislative gears on Brexit.

The court case has also underscored the generally polarizing nature of the June referendum, in which 52 percent voted to leave the European Union.

One of the plaintiffs, Gina Miller, an investment fund manager, has said she was threatened with murder and rape by Brexit supporters, who have accused her of trying to sabotage the withdrawal. A lawyer by training, Ms. Miller has said she was merely standing up for the rights of Parliament.

"This case was about the legal process, not about politics," Ms. Miller said in a news conference outside the Supreme Court, where she thanked her law firm, Mishcon de Reya, for fighting her case.

Ms. Miller said she was "shocked by the levels of personal abuse that I have received from many quarters over the last several months for simply bringing and asking a legitimate question."

At times it felt that the judges themselves were on trial. Members of the High Court who ruled against the government in November, setting the stage for the Supreme Court decision, were described by one tabloid newspaper as "enemies of the people."

But lawmakers from across the political spectrum have made clear that they want to be involved from the start.

"I and many others did not exercise our vote in the referendum so as to restore the sovereignty of this Parliament only to see what we regarded as the tyranny of the European Union replaced by that of a government," Stephen Phillips, a member of Mrs. May's Conservative Party, said when the case was first brought.

There is still an outside chance that Parliament will reassert control of Brexit talks, said Simon Tilford, a Britain and Europe specialist at the Center for European Reform in London.

"What this does is it opens the way for much greater parliamentary scrutiny of the whole process," he said. "But we're only going to get this if the Labour Party is willing to push back. That is not likely, but not impossible."

"It opens up the way for a kind of democratization of what is happening, for Parliament to hold the government to account," he added. "So far we had a vote to leave the E.U., but it certainly wasn't a vote to take Britain out of the single market, out of the customs union and to make people poorer."

[Source: By Katrin Bennhold, The New York Times, London, 24Jan17]

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small logoThis document has been published on 26Jan17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.