Delay in first legal challenge to UK’s Brexit plans

British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and First Secretary of State Dominic Raab speaks to the media as he arrives to the Informal Meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Helsinki, Finland, on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. Some EU foreign ministers at the conference expressed concern that a potentially damaging and very costly U.K. exit from the bloc without an agreement appears more likely at the moment. (Jussi Nukari/Lehtikuva via AP)

LONDON | The first legal challenge to prevent British Prime Minister Boris Johnson from suspending Parliament amid the U.K.’s Brexit crisis was delayed in a Scottish court on Friday.

The Court of Session in Edinburgh refused to take immediate legal action to prevent Johnson from suspending Parliament for several weeks during part of the period before the Brexit deadline of Oct. 31.

Judge Raymond Doherty, however, said a full hearing on the case will be heard Tuesday, raising the prospect that the government’s move could still be blocked. He said there is no need for an immediate injunction because a “substantive” hearing on the case will be heard next week.

The full hearing had originally been set for Sept. 6, but was moved up.

Law professor Nick McKerrell at Glasgow Caledonian University said the decision to speed up the hearing may be significant because it indicates the matter is being treated with urgency.

“This is not the end of the matter,” he said after the judge declined to take immediate action.

The case was brought by a cross-party group of legislators seeking to broaden the period for parliamentary debate in a bid to prevent a disorderly departure by Britain from the European Union.

Two other legal cases are in progress, one in Northern Ireland and another in London. Former Prime Minister John Major said Friday he is seeking to join the case in London to argue against suspension.

“If granted permission to intervene, I intend to seek to assist the court from the perspective of having served in government as a minister and prime minister, and also in Parliament for many years as a member of the House of Commons,” he said.

Major is an outspoken critic of Brexit who had vowed to intervene legally if Johnson sought to prevent parliamentary debate on the issue.

The legal skirmishes are designed to prevent Johnson from substantially shortening the amount of time Parliament will be given to enact legislation that might prevent a “no-deal” Brexit, which many economists believe would damage Britain’s economy.

The prime minister warned Friday that the opposition to his plans is weakening Britain’s negotiating position by giving EU leaders the impression that Parliament may step in to block Brexit.

“I’m afraid that the more our friends and partners think, at the back of their mind, that Brexit could be stopped, that the U.K. could be kept in by Parliament, the less likely they are to give us the deal that we need,” Johnson told Sky News.

Johnson has repeatedly vowed to take Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31 even if no arrangement has been reached. His predecessor, Theresa May, reached an agreement with EU leaders, but Britain’s Parliament repeatedly rejected the terms.

In Helsinki, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab defended the government’s decision to suspend Parliament and rejected suggestions that the move will prevent lawmakers from debating Brexit as concern mounts that a costly and damaging departure without any agreement is now more likely.

On Wednesday, Johnson got Queen Elizabeth II’s approval to suspend Parliament, a move widely criticized by his political opponents who see it as a maneuver to give them even less time to block a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

Johnson previously had refused to rule out such a move, but the timing of the decision took lawmakers — many of whom are on vacation — by surprise.

At talks with EU foreign ministers in Finland, Raab said that “the idea that this is some kind of constitutional outrage is nonsense. It’s actually lawful. It’s perfectly proper. There’s precedent for it.”

“We’ve been talking about nothing but Brexit. We’re going to get a chance to scrutinize all aspects of Brexit between now and the end of October,” he told reporters.

His EU counterparts expressed concern that a no-deal exit from the bloc appears more likely, but most declined to comment on the government’s move, saying it is a matter for Britain to resolve.

“It’s a debate that concerns the British government and Parliament,” Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said. Meanwhile, he said, Britain’s European partners are still waiting for new proposals to resolve the standoff over the divorce agreement, notably the so-called backstop clause which aims to avoid the return of border controls between the Republic of Ireland in the EU and Britain’s Northern Ireland.

“If we receive some proposals from London, we will examine them as we always do,” Reynders said.

But some ministers were clearly concerned about political developments in London.

“Westminster is the mother of all parliaments, and now you have a situation where that parliament is in danger of being sidelined. It’s a way of proceeding in democracy that doesn’t quite conform to the rules,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said. Johnson has insisted he was taking the step so he could outline his domestic agenda.

“I’m worried,” Asselborn said. “A no-deal is a catastrophe. It could cost thousands and thousands of jobs and needlessly create misery. I hope that political reason will prevail.”

Britain has said it will step up its technical meetings with the EU in an effort to secure a deal in the weeks that remain. Two meetings are set for next week.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he thought the EU would be ready to meet five times a week if it could get the job done, but he said that London must come up with realistic proposals and not simply kick the can down the road.

“It’s got to be credible. It can’t simply be this notion that look, we must have the backstop removed and we’ll solve this problem in the future negotiation without any credible way of doing that. That’s not going to fly, and I think it’s important that we’re all honest about that.”

British government minister Michael Gove was visiting Calais on Friday with France’s customs minister to study Brexit preparations at the busy French port.

Meanwhile, France’s junior minister for European affairs, Aurelie de Montchalin, said on BFM television that “given how things are going, it’s probable” that Britain will leave on Oct. 31 with no plans for how to handle trade, travel and cross-border business the next morning.

Lorne Cook reported from Helsinki.

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