While the UK voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, six months later we still knew little more about the manner and nature of our departure other than that the Prime Minister intended to trigger Article 50 before the end of March 2017. We were awaiting a ruling of the Supreme Court as to whether this could be done without the approval of Parliament, but it was clear that our relationship with the EU after we had left would be defined by the phrase “Brexit means Brexit”.
Just over four weeks on we have had some degree of both political and legal clarification.
On 17 January the Prime Minister set out in her Lancaster House speech the 12 principles which would guide the Government in fulfilling the will of the people when negotiating the terms of our departure from the EU. In that speech she made clear that the UK would bring to an end the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union (normally referred to as the ECJ) and would leave the Single Market and, quite possibly, the Customs Union.
The bases of those principles have now been set out in the White Paper published by the Government last week. This talks about replacing the ECJ with some kind of supranational dispute forum, negotiating a new trade agreement for goods and services with the EU and while not expressly stating that the UK will leave the Customs Union, makes clear that the Government wishes to negotiate free trade agreements around the world which would certainly not be possible under the terms of our existing membership of the Union.
The legal clarification came in the form of the 8-3 majority decision of the Supreme Court that the consent of Parliament would be required to trigger Article 50. It is, perhaps, ironic that one outcome of the judgment is that we now have greater clarity on the status of EU law within our constitution than we have ever had, just as we are about to leave. Perhaps of more significance, bearing in mind most commentators thought the Government would lose its appeal, was the ruling that the Government was not compelled to obtain the separate consent of, or even consult with, the devolved legislatures of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales before triggering Article 50.
Within days the Government recognised the judgment by publishing its 137-word European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 authorising the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50. This has already had a successful second reading in the House of Commons, securing a significant majority although since then MPs have tabled nearly 142 pages of amendments (some achievement!).
After months of anticipation, it certainly feels as if the journey has truly begun, a journey that will doubtless contain many twists and surprises. One of those surprises last week was that one of the City’s top lobby groups, TheCity UK, having previously warned of the potentially damaging effect of Brexit stated that is was now a strong believer in the potential opportunities that the UK’s departure from the EU will offer. All change indeed!