UCL and Brexit


UCL research informs policy on Europe

UCL academics regularly inform and advise policymakers on EU-related policy issues, including Brexit.

London and EU flags

They give evidence to UK and European parliaments, engage with officials in central and local government, and contribute to key working groups and policy forums.

Some notable, recent examples include:

Tom Hickman represented Gina Miller in the challenge to prorogation

4 September 2019

Tom Hickman QC  and  Reader at UCL Laws has represented campaigner Gina Miller in the challenge to prorogation in the Divisional Court.


Professor Piet Eeckhout and the Wightman case on revoking Article 50

7 December 2018


Professor Piet Eeckhout, Dean of UCL Laws and Academic Director of the UCL European Institute, has acted as academic consultant in Wightman and Others v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, also known as the Wightman case.

Wightman case

The case will see the European Court of Justice (CJEU) decide whether a member state which has notified the EU of its intention to leave can unilaterally revoke that Article 50 notification. It will clarify the legal status surrounding how the UK can stop Brexit. If the CJEU decides that Article 50 can be unilaterally revoked, this will have significant political implications, and will be a boon to anti-Brexit campaigners and many MPs. 

The case was brought to the CJEU by Members of the Scottish Parliament and MPs. It was heard by the full court of European judges. On December 4, the advocate general, Campos Sánchez-Bordona, issued his opinion to the court, arguing that Article 50 is unilaterally revocable. He argued, inter alia, that if the consent of the EU27 was required, this could lead to the departing state being forced to leave the EU against its will, which would be unacceptable. The CJEU will issue its final judgement on December 10, which is the day before MPs vote on the Brexit deal.

Professor Piet Eeckhout's role

Professor Eeckhout was part of the Wightman legal team, having written about the subject of revocability in Common Market Law Review (with Dr Eleni Frantziou, Durham). The article began as a UCL European Institute Working Paper - Brexit and Article 50 TEU: A Constitutionalist Reading - which was published in January 2017.

The arguments put forward by Piet and Eleni, on the subject of the revocability of Article 50, bear close resemblance to the arguments put forward by  advocate general Campos Sánchez-Bordona, in his official opinion. In their article they argued that: 

"if a Member State could not withdraw its notification after changing its mind, that would amount to expulsion from the Union – a possibility that is considered and rejected in the travaux of the provision. It would also be contrary to the principles of good faith, loyal cooperation, and the Union’s commitment to respect the Member States’ constitutional identities – all of which are constitutional principles requiring respect by EU institutions."

This is similar to the argument put forward by the advocate general, which demonstrates the influence which this seminal piece of work has had on these historic legal proceedings. 

Piet commented:

“It has been great to be involved in this fundamental constitutional case about the meaning of Article 50, and the right to withdrawal from the EU.  The questions go to the heart of what the EU is about: its fundamental values such as democracy and the protection of rights, and the extent to which it respects constitutional democracy in the Member States.”

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UCL Laws academics praised for the argument that led Gina Miller to victory

2 February 2017

A blog co-written by Professor Jeff King, Professor of Law and Dr Tom Hickman, Reader in Public Law at UCL Faculty of Laws, is highlighted in a piece written for The Times by Lord David Pannick QC as providing the ‘origins of the litigation’ in the landmark Brexit ruling delivered on 24 January 2017.

Along with Nick Barber, Fellow at Trinity College Oxford, Professor King and Dr Hickman wrote ‘Pulling the Article 50 ‘Trigger’: Parliament’s Indispensable Role’, published a few days after the referendum, which argued that it would be incompatible with the European Communities Act 1972 for the Prime Minister to trigger the Article 50 process without a further act of parliament.

The argument was endorsed by Lord Pannick in his regular column in The Times a few days later and both Lord Pannick and Tom Hickman were subsequently instructed by Mishcon de Reya to act for Gina Miller.

Upholding the argument of King, Hickman and Barber, the Supreme Court ruled that government ministers must receive authorisation by an Act of Parliament to give notice on the UK’s intention to leave the EU under Article 50.

Writing for The Times today, Lord Pannick gives an account of the case and states:

‘The litigation had its origins in a blog by three distinguished constitutional lawyers: Nick Barber, of Trinity College, Oxford; Jeff King, of University College London; and {Tom} Hickman. It was published on Monday, June 27 2016, a few days after the referendum. The core of their argument was upheld by the Supreme Court seven months later.’

Lord Pannick also explained the importance of the case:

‘A private citizen can and did sue the government and take it to the highest court of the land in relation to an issue of law of huge importance to the future of this country. The government was required to justify the legality of its conduct, in public. The decision was made by independent judges — all 11 members of the Supreme Court, sitting together in a case for the first time. Those judges gave fully reasoned judgments.’

‘Professor Jeff King said: ‘Backed by Professor Dame Hazel Genn, Dean of UCL Laws, UCL Laws more broadly played a significant role in the development of this historic case. Prof Piet Eeckhout asked the question that led to the blog post and guided us through EU law matters.  Dr. Silvia Suteu managed a colossal amount of highly influential submissions for the UK Constitutional Law Blog, which was singled out for praise by the Supreme Court.  And several colleagues gave written or oral evidence to Parliament.’

Dr Tom Hickman said:

‘It is fantastic that UCL Laws had such a central role in the Miller case. Really important work is being done at UCL Laws on Brexit, including by my colleagues such as Piet Eeckhout, Colm O’Cinneide and Virginia Mantouvalou who are producing required reading on legal issues surrounding Brexit.’

Read the full article on The Times (£): ‘I trended on Twitter and was asked to pose for a selfie’

Read ‘Nick Barber, Tom Hickman and Jeff King: Pulling the Article 50 ‘Trigger’: Parliament’s Indispensable Role.’

Read ‘Professor Colm O’Cinneide gives evidence on the human rights implications of Brexit to the Joint Committee on Human Rights of the UK Parliament.’

UCL Constitution Unit on Brexit, citizens' assemblies and a new Conservative leader

Constitution Unit members have appeared frequently in the media in recent months to discuss the ongoing Brexit process, citizens’ assemblies, and the election of a new Conservative leader. 

European Elections

Following the extension of Article 50, the UK held European elections on 23 May. Alan Renwick appeared on Sky News’s All Out Politics on the day to discuss the voting system. The next day, Meg Russell appeared on the Austrian programme ZIB 1 (24 May) to discuss the results. Analysis from Alan Renwick’s blogpost was cited in Politics.co.uk ’s breakdown of the results (31 May).

Tory leadership election

The Conservative Party leadership election has raised a number of important constitutional questions. Members of the Unit have commented on the implications of attempts to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Such as the likelihood of prorogation and the Queen’s role in British politics.

Meg Russell appeared on BBC News (18 June) to discuss amendments tabled by Dominic Grieve, Hilary Benn and David Anderson, aiming to block a new prime minister from proroguing parliament in order to force through a no-deal Brexit against the wishes of parliament. She appeared on BBC Radio 4’s PM (11 June) to explain the use of opposition day motions to prevent no-deal. She discussed the process of appointing a new prime minister and possible votes of confidence on The World Tonight (24 June). Meg was also interviewed on Austrian television (7 June) on the subject of the leadership race.

Meg Russell and Robert Hazell co-wrote a blogpost addressing six key constitutional questions that were raised as the leadership race continued. Their analysis formed the basis of an Observer piece (30 June) and was subsequently picked up by the Evening Standard the Financial TimesProspect, the Spectator, and Bloomberg among others. For a full list of mentions below:

Boris Johnson ‘might never enter No 10 if MPs withdraw support, The Observer – 30 June Daily Briefing, The Week – 30 June Johnson ‘could be prevented from becoming PM’ due to lack of support from MPs  - China Daily – 1 July Jeremy Hunt risks ‘slip-sliding’ from Brexit into second vote, warn team Boris, The Evening Standard – 1 July Johnson and Hunt may pose as champions of the Union but if elected the winner is not automatically prime minister, Slugger O’Toole – 1 July Can Boris Johnson really prorogue parliament to force a no-deal Brexit? New European – 1 July Johnson may not become PM: Constitutional expertsKhmer Times – 2 July Can the next PM command a Commons majority? Financial Times – 2 July Brexit and the constitution: Will a Johnson premiership prove dead on arrival? Prospect magazine – 3 July Neil Mackay: It’s time to focus on the threat Nigel Farage poses to democracy, The Herald Scotland – 4 July Why the Queen should appoint Johnson or Hunt as PM, The Spectator – 9 July Sir John Major says he’ll take Boris Johnson to court if he tries to prorogue Parliament for a no-deal Brexit, INews – 10 July John Major's plan to take Government to court to stop a suspension of Parliament is 'realistic', says lawyer, MSN – 11 July


On 17 June, the Unit ran an event on the election of party leaders “Who should pick party leaders: MPs, members or a wider public?”.  You can watch a video of the event here

Citizens’ Assemblies

We’ve seen a huge increase in the discussion of citizens' assemblies in the last few months. Advocates argue that they could help politicians to make progress on issues currently facing deadlock in parliament, such as climate change and Brexit, as well as constitutional questions in Scotland and Wales. The Unit’s ongoing work on deliberative democratic processes and its past work on the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (CAB) has been regularly cited.

On climate change, Extinction Rebellion highlighted the Unit's CAB and the 2015 Citizens’ Assembly on English Devolution as exemplars.

As part of his leadership bid Rory Stewart called for a parliament backed Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit and mentioned the Unit on the Andrew Marr show (16 June).

In The National (28 April), Joanna Cherry MP explained why she had pushed for a Citizens’ Assembly in Scotland, citing the success of the Unit’s CAB. An op-ed in Common Space Scotland on lessons to be learned ahead of the Scottish Citizens’ Assembly and a mySociety report into the use of digital tools in Citizens’ Assemblies both drew on the CAB experience. The CAB is also mentioned on the Scottish government’s Citizens’ Assembly homepage.

The Unit ran an event on citizen’s assemblies, “Citizens’ Assemblies: What are they good for?”, on 1 July. Watch a video of the event here.

Democratic Innovation

The Unit’s research on the role deliberative processes in improving democratic discourse continues to attract interest. In an interview for OpenDemocracy (19 May), Professor Graham Smith (University of Westminster) drew heavily his experience at the CAB, in explaining why citizens’ assemblies could help foster ‘considered judgement’ in politics. Meanwhile, an article for the UC Berkeley magazine (2 July) also drew on the CAB experience in suggesting that citizens’ assemblies could help deal with political polarisation.

Alan Renwick appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Analysis programme on Deliberative Democracy (4th March) to discuss citizens’ assemblies. Meg Russell appeared on David Runciman’s three-part series on BBC Radio 4 entitled Rethinking Representation(June). They discussed the impact of the Brexit crisis on democratic institutions, the declining trust in politics, and whether democratic innovation could provide solutions.

In recent months, the Scottish government has been particularly active in this area. Addressing this, Alan Renwick wrote a piece for the Scotsman (6 May) on the benefits of a multi-stage referendum process on Scottish independence. Drawing on Alan Renwick and Michela Palese’s Doing Democracy Better report, an Institute for Government post (28 June), suggested that a Scottish Citizens’ Assembly might help compile and publicise information to inform voters before a second independence referendum.

Meanwhile, the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Referendums continue to have political impact. The report was mentioned in a House of Lords debate on Referendums (13 June) as well as in the Scottish Government’s Policy Memorandumon the Referendums Bill.

Other examples
  • Professor Eeckhout was a panel member on a discussion regarding the future of EU trade policy at an event held at the European Parliament in January 2020.
  • Meg Russell and Alan Renwick, UCL Constitution Unit, gave evidence in July 2018 to the PACAC (Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee) on the Independent Commission on Referendums established by the Constitution Unit to review the role of referendums in British democracy and consider how the rules and practice could be improved.
  • Professor Maria Lee, UCL Laws, gave evidence on environmental law and Brexit at the National Assembly for Wales in May 2018.
  • Professor Piet Eeckhout, Dean of UCL Laws, has given evidence to several parliamentary select committees, most recently in May 2018 at the INTA committee (the Trade Committee of the European Union), at the European Parliament on his publication on ‘Future trade relations between the EU and the UK’. He also provided evidence on policing and security post-Brexit to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, and on the legal aspects of Brexit to the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs.
  • IIPP Director Professor Mariana Mazzucato was appointed Special Advisor on Mission Driven Science and Innovation to EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, starting January 2018.
  • The Constitution Unit’s Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit project was influential in shaping debates on Brexit and public opinion in Westminster, with various MPs referencing the project’s findings.
  • A number of Chatham House rules roundtable series have been convened by the UCL European Institute to allow policy-makers to engage with academic expertise on Brexit.

UCL Brexit Hub

Find out more about how UCL academics and researchers are engaging with policy related to Brexit on the UCL Brexit Hub.

Brexit and Beyond (BAB) Steering Group

A UCL's Brexit and Beyond (BAB) Steering Group has been set up across UCL to identify priority areas and develop strategies for engaging academic research and expertise with policy challenges related to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. The group regularly liaises with UCL academics working on Brexit-related areas of expertise, who can inform and advise on specialist questions, and who already regularly consult and prepare analysis for government, parliaments and industry.

For further information, please contact Clément Leroy, brexit@ucl.ac.uk, Brexit Research and Policy Engagement Associate.

UCL Public Policy

Many of these activities benefit from the expertise of UCL Public Policy, an initiative that connects researchers and policy professionals, in order to inform policy with evidence. Supporting the flow of evidence-based research and ideas to have an impact on major societal challenges, UCL Public Policy has well established deep and strategic relationships with numerous government departments and agencies, locally, nationally and beyond.