Article 50: House of Commons debates urgent question on legal process for leaving EU

The formal process of leaving the EU could be triggered using the Royal Prerogative, a power now exercised by the Prime Minister, according to Government minister Oliver Letwin

Ashley Cowburn,Ian Johnston
Monday 11 July 2016 18:03
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How we leave the EU will be revealed once May is PM

Government lawyers believe the decision to begin the process of leaving the EU can be made using an executive order from the new Prime Minister, a minister has said.

Cabinet Office minister John Penrose told the Commons Parliament will nonetheless “have a role” in triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, formally starting the process of Brexit.

The House of Commons held a brief debate after an urgent question was filed on how the UK will go about beginning the process of leaving the European Union.

The question, put forward by Labour MP Helen Goodman today, came after Andrea Leadsom dropped out of the Conservative leadership race, clearing the way for Theresa May to be named Britian’s next Prime Minister.

Mr Penrose said that Government lawyers believe triggering Article 50 “is a Royal Prerogative issue”.

He added though that “democratic principles should outrank legal formalities”.

“The Prime Minister has already said Parliament will have a role, and it is clearly right that a decision as momentous as this one must be fully debated and discussed in Parliament,” he said.

He said the “precise details” of those debates had to be agreed, but he suggested there would in fact be many parliamentary discussions on “the timing and different facets of the negotiations”.

Government minister Oliver Letwin told the Foreign Affairs Committee last week that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which formally begins the process under which a state leaves the EU, could be triggered using th Royal Prerogative, a power now exercised by the Prime Minister.

But on Wednesday Ms Goodman told The Independent that this meant the decision could be taken “without parliamentary approval”.

“The Vote Leave campaign promised to take back control and restore parliamentary sovereignty and the first thing that has to be done to negotiate Brexit is to trigger Article 50 and the Government seems to be proposing to do this using the royal prerogative,“ she said.

What is Article 50?

“I think it’s quite wrong when the public was promised this was about restoring parliamentary sovereignty.

More than 1,000 lawyers have signed a letter addressed to outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron saying the EU referendum result is merely “advisory” and not legally binding.

Arguing the vote for Brexit, which was opposed by world leaders such as Barack Obama and Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund, is far from guaranteed, the group advised the Government to carefully consider whether to follow through with the British public's vote to leave the European Union.

Before Article 50 can be triggered, they say primary legislation will need to be enacted.

Leading constitutional lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC told The Independent: “I think Britain would be a laughing stock if this outmoded mechanism [the Royal Prerogative] were used by the Government to usurp the role of parliament in a democracy – a role that many Parliamentarians fought and died for in the civil wars of the 1640s.

“It’s a preposterous and undemocratic suggestion that the Prime Minister has the power to alter the fundamental basis of the British constitution without the support of MPs.

“It would surely be judicially reviewed because the so-called Royal Prerogative powers have been reviewable [by the courts] since the attempt to use it to block a case about GCHQ was defeated in 1984.

“The simple fact is we remain in the European Union until Parliament repeals that act which took us into it, namely the 1972 European Communities Act.”

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