Tuesday

22nd Jan 2019

EU court adds to knife-edge Brexit drama

  • British prime minister Theresa May held emergency cabinet talks on Monday (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU judges have granted the UK the right to stop Brexit, amid fresh question marks on whether Tuesday's (11 December) crunch vote in London will actually take place.

"The United Kingdom is free to revoke unilaterally the notification of its intention to withdraw from the EU," the European Court of Justice, the bloc's highest tribunal, said in Luxembourg on Monday.

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  • 'Not two options, but three', including Brexit revocation, in House of Commons vote on Tuesday, the EU court said (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The verdict came as MPs in the UK prepared to vote on British prime minister Theresa May's EU withdrawal pact in the House of Commons the next day.

The verdict meant, the EU court said, that there were now "not two options, but three - namely withdrawal from the European Union without an agreement, withdrawal from the European Union with an agreement, or revocation of the notification of the intention to withdraw and the United Kingdom's remaining in the European Union."

Its decision came under a so-called "expedited procedure" due to the "extreme urgency" of the matter.

Any unilateral revocation must be done in accordance with British law, be formally notified to other EU states in writing, and take place before 29 March next year, when the UK was meant to leave, the court added.

EU lawyers had argued in a recent hearing that revocation should only take place by consensus of all 28 member states.

But the court said this would rob the UK of its "sovereign right" and could lead to Britain being "forced to leave the European Union against its will".

That would go against the principles of helping EU states leave in "an orderly fashion" and of "ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe", the judges added.

May has spent the weekend trying to galvanise support for the exit pact, amid stern EU warnings that it would not renegotiate the deal.

The package includes a clause that would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU indefinitely if the two sides did not find a way to keep the border open between Ireland and Northern Ireland, prompting Brexiteers to call it a capitulation.

"The deal ... is not going to change. Particularly the legal language of the withdrawal treaty," Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said in Brussels on Monday.

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, said the court verdict could pave the way to a second new referendum.

Catherine Stihler, a Scottish Labour MEP, also said: "This historic ruling paves the way for the disastrous Brexit process to be brought to a halt".

But Shami Chakrabarti, the opposition Labour party's shadow attorney generaI, said: "I don't think that this legal judgment changes the position because it isn't a surprise".

Vote postponed?

The debate came amid signs that May might postpone Tuesday's vote, where a defeat could prompt her fall and cause a political train crash in the UK.

"If this goes pear-shaped in the way that it really could, on the back of people opposing the deal that is on offer tomorrow night, the wreckers in history will forever be known as the wreckers," Alan Duncan, May's junior foreign office minister, said in London.

"If rumours of a delay [of Tuesday's vote] are correct, it will be pathetic cowardice by a PM and government that have run out of road and now need to get out of the way," Scotland's Sturgeon tweeted, as May held emergency talks on Monday with her cabinet in Westminster.

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