By Michele Sinner and Alastair Macdonald
LUXEMBOURG/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union’s top court ruled on Monday that the British government may reverse its decision to leave the bloc without consulting other member states, a decision welcomed by those campaigning to stop Brexit.
In an emergency judgment delivered just 36 hours before it expected the British parliament to vote on a Brexit deal agreed with the EU by Prime Minister Theresa May, the Court of Justice (ECJ) said: “The United Kingdom is free to revoke unilaterally the notification of its intention to withdraw from the EU.”
May later postponed that vote in the face of defeat, setting up tense new talks with EU leaders she will meet at a summit on Thursday and Friday.
The heightened uncertainty over how and even whether Britain can arrange to leave the bloc lent even greater significance to the judges’ decision. May rejects holding a new Brexit referendum but her hold on office is looking shaky.
The ruling, clarifying Article 50 of the EU treaty, rejected arguments put forward by the EU executive, which said other EU states would need to agree, partly on the grounds that otherwise governments could use threats of withdrawal to gain advantage.
It followed an opinion last week by a Court legal adviser which had boosted hope among Brexit opponents that a new referendum could be held that would prevent Britain’s scheduled departure on March 29, 2019.
The court ruled any revocation of Brexit must be made before withdrawal takes effect and made clear Britain could still extend that deadline by up to a year, as long as all 27 other members agreed.
Britain’s foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said the ruling was irrelevant as the government would not change course, and warned that the 52 percent of Britons who voted to leave the EU in a June 2016 referendum would be “shocked and very angry” if it did.
Michael Russell, a minister in Scotland’s devolved government, noted most Scots voted against Brexit and said the judgment “exposes as false the idea that the only choice is between bad deal negotiated by the UK government or the disaster of no deal”.
THREE OPTIONS, NOT TWO
The Court itself said it had ruled with unprecedented haste to show British lawmakers they have three options not two — leave on agreed terms, leave without a deal or not leave at all.
The ECJ argued that a national right to leave should be matched by an equally sovereign right to reverse that, as long as that decision is made before withdrawal.
It cited the EU treaty goal of “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” — a clause particularly hated by Brexit campaigners — to justify arguing that states cannot be forced out of the Union.
The court also challenged a view in Brussels that if Britain stayed it might lose some privileges it has built up over the years, including a hefty rebate on its EU budget contributions.
“Revocation … would have the effect that the United Kingdom remains in the EU under terms that are unchanged,” it said.
It is far from clear whether or how Britain could organize a new referendum. Opinion polls suggest that any new majority for staying in the EU is narrow and many in the EU question the wisdom of keeping such a divided country as a member.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Jon Boyle)