What does ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mean (if anything)?

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Theresa May has been clear that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. However, Brexit could mean a number of different things. In this post Sionaidh Douglas-Scott writes that there are no legal or political reasons why Brexit negotiations must take any particular direction. The electorate voted only to leave the EU, not for any particular exit agreement.

On 28 July in Bratislava, Theresa May told eastern European countries that the British people sent a ‘very clear message’ on the need to reduce migration through their vote to leave the EU, and that the UK’s deal with the EU would have to take into account voters’ views on immigration control. But does this mean that free trade with the EU will have to be sacrificed in order to curb free movement of people? If so, then the possibility of the UK following the ‘Norway option’, by joining the EEA, would seem to be ruled out.

Yet in many ways, the EEA might be the best alternative to EU membership for the UK. It could provide legal security for trade with the EU in most goods and services and could be achieved quite quickly, reducing uncertainty. EEA membership would mean that the UK was free to sign its own trade deals with other countries and also would not bind the UK to some of the EU’s more contentious policies such as fisheries, agriculture or VAT policy. However, it would mean continuing free movement of persons with the EU, which many see as a key reason for the Leave vote. (Yet, notably, unlike EU membership, Chapter 4 of the EEA Agreement provides a safeguard, whereby EEA states can disapply part of the EEA, ‘If serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of sectorial or regional nature liable to persist are arising.’)

But must Brexit mean ‘hard Brexit’? Must resistance to the continued free movement of persons within the EU dictate the terms of any deal the UK negotiates with the EU? I argue not – there are no legal or political reasons why Brexit negotiations must take any particular direction, let alone a hard one.

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Brexit, the referendum and the UK parliament: some questions about sovereignty

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During the referendum campaign there was much talk about sovereignty, but little clarity on what it actually means. Sionaidh Douglas-Scott explains that there are at least three notions of sovereignty that are relevant in the context of Brexit which are often confused – parliamentary sovereignty, popular sovereignty and external sovereignty. The immediate aftermath of last week’s vote has shown how these can come into conflict.

So, we have the result of the referendum, and a majority of voters have voted to leave the EU. A mantra of Leave campaigners seems to have been the desire to ‘take back control’. There has been much talk of sovereignty, although less clarity on what it actually means. However, at its most basic, there are at least three notions of sovereignty that are relevant in the context of Brexit, and they are often confused. The first is parliamentary sovereignty, which is said to have particular resonance in the UK because, due to the vagaries of the uncodified UK constitution, the Westminster parliament has been recognised as a body with unlimited legislative power. Yet the parliamentary sovereignty of a representative democracy may seem to be at odds with popular sovereignty as exercised in a referendum. Popular sovereignty also has other implications, such as in Scotland, where an indigenous Scottish tradition claims that sovereignty resides in the Scottish people, in spite of the alternative claims of Diceyan parliamentary sovereignty. Thirdly, there is external sovereignty, whereby a country may be sovereign and recognised as independent by the international community. But states recognise that international agreements such NATO, or EU treaties, curb sovereignty in practice. However, these constraints are willingly accepted by states because of the benefits that pooling or ceding some sovereignty can bring – indeed it can even enhance sovereignty in another sense of a state’s power or ability to deal with certain issues.

These are three different concepts of sovereignty, but they have become very confused in the context of Brexit and the UK’s relations with the EU. Now we have the results of the referendum vote, what are the implications of ‘taking back control’ for sovereignty? This blog examines three specific issues arising in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote which reveal the extent of confusion over sovereignty.

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Brexit, devolution and legislative consent: what if the devolution statutes were left unchanged after Brexit?

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In a previous blog post Sionaidh Douglas-Scott wrote about how the consent of the devolved assemblies would be required to remove references to EU law from the devolution legislation in the event of Brexit. Here, she considers what would happen if, fearing the constitutional crisis that may result, the UK government simply left the devolution legislation untouched. For the sake of simplicity and space, this blog restricts discussion to Scotland, although similar issues will pertain to Wales and Northern Ireland.

In a blog post published on this site earlier this week, I considered the requirement for the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament when the UK parliament seeks to legislate in devolved policy areas, or seeks to vary the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament or the executive competence of the Scottish government. In the event of Brexit, these circumstances may arise with regard to the need to amend devolution legislation, such as the Scotland Act 1998, in order to remove references to EU law. If such consent is not forthcoming, this could prompt a constitutional crisis. However, suppose then that, desirous to avoid such constitutional consequences, the UK government decided not to propose legislation to amend the devolution statutes, but opted instead to leave them unchanged. What would be the impact of their doing this? Again we take Scotland as the working example.

At first sight, such a hypothesis seems ludicrously unworkable. Such a situation would require Scotland to act in compliance with EU law in any legislation it adopted in Holyrood within the scope of its devolved competences. So there would be a situation obtaining within a post-Brexit UK in which one regime operated for the Westminster parliament (no need to act compliantly with EU law) and a different regime in Holyrood, which according to s. 29(2)(d) of the Scotland Act 1998 would still have to act in compliance with EU law wherever it enacted its own devolved legislation. Although it would be technically possible to require compliance with EU law for Scottish legislation, even if the UK were not a member of the EU and were no longer bound by EU treaties, it would certainly be strange if a treaty that no longer bound the UK was still required under the devolution settlement. There are some precedents for voluntary compliance with treaties by non-contracting parties. For example, the EU in Art 6 TEU declares that ‘The Union shall respect fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’, and the EU is not currently a contracting party to the ECHR (although all members of the EU are themselves contracting parties to the ECHR). Requiring the Scottish Parliament to comply with EU law would no doubt give rise to uncertainty: for example, post Brexit, how would ‘compliance’ with EU law be evaluated, and would interpretations by the Luxembourg Courts be taken into account?

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Removing references to EU law from the devolution legislation would require the consent of the devolved assemblies

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In the event of Brexit, there will be pressing devolutionary matters to be addressed. One of these concerns the issue of the legislative consent of the devolved nations to the amendment of devolution legislation in order to remove references to EU law. If such consent is not forthcoming, this could prompt a constitutional crisis. In this post Sionaidh Douglas-Scott discusses this. For the sake of simplicity and space this blog restricts discussion to Scotland, although similar issues will pertain to legislative consent in Wales and Northern Ireland.

If there is a vote to leave the EU in the referendum on June 23, then the UK would need to commence proceedings to withdraw from the EU under Article 50 TEU. Art 50(3) states that after expiry of certain time periods the Treaties ‘shall cease to apply to the State in question.’ However, this would not be enough to remove the impact of EU law in the UK. It would also be necessary to repeal or amend the European Communities Act (ECA) 1972, which is the statute giving domestic effect to EU law in the UK.

Nor would this be an end to matters. EU law is incorporated directly into the devolution statutes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For example, section 29(2)(d) of the Scotland Act 1998 provides that acts of the Scottish Parliament that are incompatible with EU law are ‘not law’. Therefore, although the Westminster parliament may repeal the ECA 1972, this would not bring an end to the domestic incorporation of EU law in devolved nations. It would still be necessary to amend the relevant parts of devolution legislation. But this would be no simple matter and could lead to a constitutional crisis.

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