Opponents of “Brexit” are considering legal steps they can take to try and prevent the UK’s exit from the EU. Lawyers and campaigners have been studying the situation to identify areas of the law through which the decision may be challenged.
The referendum has proved a decisive issue for the UK, and a vote in favour of leaving the EU by a majority of just 51.9% has left many opponents of Brexit unsatisfied. Many not only continue to believe that leaving the EU would be a mistake, but feel that, with the public still essentially split down the middle, the vote was too close to form the basis of such a major and long-term decision for the country’s future. Matters have not been helped by polls suggesting that over 1.1 million people may regret voting leave, either in light of things that have happened and information that has come to light since voting closed or because they used it as a protest vote.
Millions of people, an unprecedented number, have signed a petition for the government to repeat the referendum in hopes that the British public will be able to come to a more decisive conclusion one way or another. Others fear that this could just lead to a “neverendum” where vote after vote must be held before a vote that will be accepted can emerge.
Those who oppose either the entire concept of leaving the EU or the acceptance of such a narrow majority have begun looking at possible legal bases for either blocking the UK’s exit from the EU or delaying it for further consideration. Many of these possibilities are rooted in the fact that the referendum itself is not legally binding. A public vote is not part of the process for leaving the EU and under law is essentially an opinion poll, though the government added weight to it by pledging before polls opened to follow the result.
The actual legal mechanism for the UK to enact Brexit is by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which gives a two-year timeframe for the country to negotiate its exit. Article 50 states that an EU member state may leave the Union “in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.” This has led some legal experts to raise questions about just what requirements are lawful in the UK constitution, with some claiming that the Prime Minister alone does not have the authority to invoke Article 50 as this would overturn the 1972 European Communities Act. Under this interpretation, the Prime Minister requires consent in the form of an act of parliament to leave the EU.
A number of legal experts have subscribed to this view. One of these is Lord Pannick QC, who says that the question of whether such consent should be given is a matter for parliament to decide.