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British Court: Government Needs Parliament's Approval To Exit EU


In this wildly unpredictable political year, here's another surprise - this one in Great Britain. There, a court ruled this morning that the government cannot begin the process of leaving the European Union, what's known as Brexit, without the approval of Parliament. To help make sense of this, we're going now to London and NPR's Frank Langfitt. Good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Big question - what does this mean? I mean, well, could Parliament overturn the result of the Brexit referendum?

LANGFITT: Well, the government is going to give Parliament a bill, and obviously legislators can vote down a bill. Right now, the Conservative Party, which is in power - that's Theresa May's party - they have probably enough votes, certainly in the House of Commons, to get this through. But this throws this whole situation into potentially - potential political chaos. They can amend the bill. They can fight it. There's going to be a big debate. And so there are going to be a lot of questions opened up again that Theresa May, the prime minister, wanted to keep control over - a debate over whether they stay in the European single market, what kind of impact this could have on the U.K. economy. So it just adds tremendous uncertainty to what's been kind of a crazy season in politics here.

MONTAGNE: Well, there is some part of this where the Brexit referendum - right - is sort of, in a technical sense, non-binding. But I mean, did you expect this court to rule this way?

LANGFITT: No. I - in fact, it's really interesting. I interviewed one of the key plaintiffs, a woman named Gina Miller - she's a fund manager - about six weeks ago, and it was a polite conversation. I just sort of thought, well, it's very interesting arguments that you're making. But good luck with this because this is something that seemed - you know, the people of the United Kingdom had voted on this - 17 million votes. It seemed like this was nothing that you could then throw back to the legislature. But she made a very convincing argument to the high court and they bought it. And so now a lot of things are in play again.

MONTAGNE: Well, most members of Parliament opposed Brexit. They were stay people.

LANGFITT: They did.

MONTAGNE: So we're just in the high court here, not the Supreme Court, but what would happen if it really were to go for - to a vote by members of Parliament?

LANGFITT: Well, you're going to see a very, very interesting debate, and I think you're going to see the public debate that Gina Miller really wanted. Her argument was - one of her arguments was that the debate - and we talked about this a lot in the air. You and I talked about this last summer that there was a lot of misleading information about leaving the European Union. It was very complex. And so what she wanted to see was a real debate. And a lot has happened since then. You know, the British pound has fallen dramatically. There are signs of companies wanting to leave Britain because of Brexit. So this is kind of open - going to open things up again, and it could be a very, very interesting debate in Parliament.

MONTAGNE: But there is a Supreme Court above this high court. Is the government...


MONTAGNE: ...Government going to appeal?

LANGFITT: The government says it will, and of course the Supreme Court would need to act on this pretty quickly because Prime Minister May, she would like to trigger Brexit by the end of March. So this could be delayed for a while. We'll have to see.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly, there have been comparisons made between campaigns this year in Britain and the U.S. What do you make of this between these two countries?

LANGFITT: I think we're actually in an extraordinary political time in both countries. We've had anti-immigration sentiment in both countries, anti-globalization sentiment. And you're seeing also people feeling left behind in older Rust Belt kinds of communities. And that's what's driven both, in many cases, the case of the presidential campaign of Mr. Trump and Brexit. So it's a remarkable time here in the U.S. and in the U.K.

MONTAGNE: Frank, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.