Can the UK Parliament Veto Brexit? A Legal Analysis

The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) was perhaps the country’s biggest paradigm shift in the post-war period. The election result was also a shock on the global market, resulting in the biggest ever two-day selloff in stocks.

However, since the so-called Brexit on July 23, more than 1,000 lawyers have signed a letter advising the UK government that the referendum is not legally binding. For these lawyers, British lawmakers should carefully weigh the pros and cons of leaving the EU before triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which refers to the formal route member-states must take to leave the bloc.

The lawyers have advised the ruling Conservative party to “reconcile the legal, constitutional and political issues” triggered by the Leave vote.

“Parliament is sovereign and the guardian of our democracy,” Philip Kolvin, who coordinated the letter, said.

“MPs are elected to exercise their best judgment on the basis of objective evidence, to safeguard the interests of the country and their constituents for this and future generations.

“At this time of profound constitutional, political and possibly social and economic crisis, we look to them to fulfil the responsibility placed upon them.”[1]

Technically, referendums are not legally binding in the UK. This crucial detail has been overlooked not only by Vote Leave, but by out-going Prime Minister David Cameron, who quickly announced his resignation mere hours after the votes were collected.

In the United Kingdom, referendums are merely advisory, which means that elected officials could theoretically ignore the results and find new avenues for moving forward.[2] Whether or not this actually occurs is a different question altogether.

To-date, the British government has stuck to its guns in maintaining that “Brexit means Brexit.” That phrase was uttered by junior minister John Penrose, who recently addressed accusations that the pro-EU Labour Party was trying to ignore the Brexit vote.

“Brexit means Brexit. The people have spoken. What that means is the destination to which we are travelling is not in doubt,” Penrose said.[3]

There’s no telling what the backlash would be in the event the UK government ignored the biggest referendum in the country’s recent history. It would no doubt undermine the democratic process and may lead to a huge revolt among voters. David Cameron realized that early on and vowed to move quickly on the matter in the event that Britons were keen on leaving the EU.

However, the path towards Brexit is one of the biggest uncertainties facing the Tory government. With Andrea Leadsom dropping out of the race to replace David Cameron, Theresa May has now stepped into the crucial role of prime minister. This has probably saved the Conservative party at least two months of deliberation, but beyond that, the future toward a legal separation from the EU is unclear.

For starters, even pro-Brexit Tories have expressed they are in no rush to trigger Article 50. Secondly, even when Article 50 is initiated, it would take at least two years for the UK and European Union to negotiate new trade terms. Experts say this process could take much longer.

[1] Peter Yeung (July 11, 2016). “Brexit: Letter saying EU referendum result ‘not legally binding’ signed by more than 1,000 lawyers.” The Independent.

[2] Adam Payne (June 14, 2016). “There is an incredible theory that a Brexit won’t actually happen even if the public votes for it.” Business Insider UK.

[3] David Maddox (July 11, 2016). “NO parliament vote on Article 50: MPs told ‘people have spoke’ and ‘Brexit means Brexit’.” Express.

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