The EU Referendum. Do the Parliaments decide?

The process of leaving the EU will begin with notification of withdrawal under article 50 of the TFEU. Until this is done the UK remains a member of the EU and is under no obligation to give such notice within any time frame, or, indeed, at all. The process will end with the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 two years after notification under article 50. This process raises a number of constitutional issues.

Is Scotland’s consent required for withdrawal from the UK? It has been suggested that this might be the case by virtue of these provisions in the Scotland Act 1998.

Section 29(2)(d)  states that a provision of an Act of the Scottish Parliament is not law in so far as it is incompatible with EU law (similar provisions appear in the legislation setting up the Northern Ireland and Welsh assemblies).

Paragraph 1 of Schedule 4 prevents modification of certain provisions of the European Communities Act 1972.

Section 57(2) states that a member of the Scottish Government has no power to act in a way that is incompatible with EU law.

However, repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 would not involve a devolved matter and the consequence would be that after withdrawal from the EU, Scotland would remain with the restriction that its legislation in devolved matters must continue to be compatible with EU law.

Who triggers article 50?

The referendum has no binding legal force and it would be open to Parliament to decide not to leave the EU, although politically this would be very unlikely. However, is it up to Parliament to decide? The conventional view is that giving notice under art. 50 falls within the Royal Prerogative and would be something for the Prime Minister. A contrary view has been expressed by various constitutional lawyers, such as Lord Pannick writing in The Times on 30 June.

“Article 50 notification commits the UK to withdrawal from the EU, and so is inconsistent with the 1972 act. Withdrawal is the object of the notification, and it is the legal effect. If, at the end of the negotiating period, parliament disagrees with the withdrawal which flows from the notification, there is nothing parliament could then do to prevent our withdrawal from the EU, which would frustrate the 1972 act. Therefore prerogative powers may not now be used.”

The new Prime Minister, whoever they may be, will be faced with the possibility of immediate legal challenge in the event of their deciding to give notification under article 50. This might well incline them to seek authorisation from Parliament.

Interesting times.

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