Today’s ruling by the High Court requires the government to obtain approval from Parliament if it wishes to trigger ‘Article 50’, ie the process of withdrawing from the European Union. This short post won’t focus on the national constitutional law issues, but on the process of possible involvement of the EU courts in Brexit disputes.

The government has announced its intention to appeal today’s ruling to the Supreme Court. Some have suggested that the case might then be ‘appealed’ to the ECJ, but this misunderstands the judicial system of the European Union. There is no ‘appeal’ from national courts to the ECJ. Rather a national court may suspend proceedings and ask the ECJ some questions relating to EU law that the national court believes it needs the answers to. After the ECJ gives the answers to those questions, the national court resumes its proceedings and gives its judgment in light of them. The ECJ normally takes about 16 months to give a ruling, although it could (and probably would) fast-track a case raising fundamental questions about Brexit.

What EU law questions arise in this case? The obvious one is whether a notification to leave the EU under Article 50 of the TEU can be revoked once it is given. This is relevant because at the heart of the UK case is a dispute about the ‘royal prerogative’, ie the underlying powers of the UK executive. The royal prerogative allows the executive to conduct international relations, including decisions relating to international treaties. But prior case law makes clear that the prerogative cannot extend to taking away rights conferred by Parliament. The High Court has ruled today that this is what would happen if the executive invoked Article 50, since rights are conferred by the European Communities Act.

Yet logically if an Article 50 notification is revocable, then the decision would arguably not as such necessarily lead to the removal of rights conferred by Parliament. Only the subsequent failure to revoke it would. The High Court assumed in its judgment that the notification was not revocable, but that’s only because the parties agreed on this. The claimants agreed that an Article 50 notification was irrevocable because otherwise it would have weakened their case. The government agreed, perhaps because it would have been politically awkward to argue the opposite.

But it’s not up to parties in a national proceeding to decide on what the correct interpretation of EU law is. Article 267 TFEU says that final national courts must send questions of EU law to the ECJ if necessary to give judgment. So the Supreme Court may decide that it wants to have this question answered.

The revocability of Article 50 is not just an issue in this litigation. It’s a broader political issue, since some politicians would like there to be another referendum before the UK fully leaves the EU, once the public knows the terms of exit. That’s only a feasible suggestion if it is possible to revoke an Article 50 notification once it’s made, given that the EU refuses to discuss the terms of exit with the UK until that notification is made …

This is an extract from the EU law analysis blog spot by Steve Peers

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