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Brexit: UK can unilaterally revoke article 50, says ECJ | Politics | The Guardian

The UK can unilaterally stop the Brexit process, the European court of justice has said in a ruling that will boost demands for a second EU referendum.

The court concluded that any EU member state can revoke an article 50 process without needing approval from every other member state.

“The United Kingdom is free to revoke unilaterally the notification of its intention to withdraw from the EU,” the ECJ said.

The emergency judgment came the day before the critical Commons vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal and will be reviewed urgently by Scotland’s civil court in Edinburgh. That process will kickstart what is expected to be a last-ditch legal battle by the UK government, which is likely to end in the supreme court.

The judges rejected arguments from both the UK government and the European commission that article 50, the two-year-long process that triggers a member state’s departure from the EU, could not be revoked unilaterally.

A spokeswoman for the court said that any revocation “must be decided following a democratic process in accordance with national constitutional requirements”.

Vote on Brexit deal: what could happen next?

Theresa May quits

The prime minister resigns after a humiliating defeat. Many MPs believe she will have to go if she loses by more than 100 votes. An interim prime minister would have to be chosen while the Tory party plans a leadership contest.

PM goes cap in hand back to Brussels

May begs Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, left, to go the extra mile and reopen the talks. She asks for concessions over the Irish backstop, and then puts whatever she can secure to a second vote in the Commons.

May promotes the Norway option, floated by Amber Rudd and others

Plenty of Conservative and Labour MPs would be happy to see a soft-Brexit, Norway-style solution that keeps Britain in the single market, as suggested by Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary. Although she has previously rubbished the idea, May could do a U-turn and try to sell it as a compromise to avoid the disaster of no deal.

May caves in to calls for a second referendum

With her deal ditched, and if “no deal” is also ruled out by parliament, May’s least worst option could be to go back to the people. Many Tory MPs are pushing her to do so. If Labour officially backs the idea, a second referendum –as suggested by Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary – could happen.

May or her successor accepts defeat and agrees to a no-deal Brexit

If parliament cannot agree on what kind of exit from the European Union it wants, and if there is no majority for a second referendum, Britain hurtles towards a no-deal departure on 29 March 2019. A hardcore group of Brexiters led by Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg would rather accept trading with Europe on basic World Trade Organisation terms than May’s deal or any form of soft Brexit.

Brexit is dropped without a second referendum

If there is no agreement on anything, and “no deal” has been blocked off as an option by parliament, the other choice available is no Brexit. May or whoever is in charge could form a cross-party government of national unity, revoke Article 50 and call the whole thing off.

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Monday’s decision upheld a finding by the ECJ advocate general, Manuel Campos Sánchez-Bordona, who said last week that article 50 of the Lisbon treaty allows the “unilateral revocation of the notification of the intention to withdraw from the EU, until such time as the withdrawal agreement is formally concluded”.

He rejected the contention that the mechanism for a member state to quit the trade bloc could only be reversed following a unanimous decision of the European council.

Dame Margaret Beckett, one of the most prominent Labour supporters of the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum, said the ruling focused the Brexit debate on two options: accepting May’s deal or abandoning Brexit.

“We now all know beyond any doubt that we can stay in the EU – it’s not too late,” the MP said. “In the next few days we can take Theresa May’s deal off the table too. Other Brexit options do not work any better than that of the prime minister because there is no deal that can keep all the promises made two years ago, or is better than the deal we’ve got in the EU.”

However the environment secretary, Michael Gove, played down the significance of the decision, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We don’t want to stay in the European Union. We voted very clearly – 17.4 million people sent a clear message that they wanted to leave the European Union. And that also means leaving the jurisdiction of the European court of justice.

“So this case is all very well, but it doesn’t alter either the referendum vote or the clear intention of the government to make sure that we leave on 29 March.”

The shadow attorney general, Shami Chakrabarti, told Today that Labour’s position had not changed as a result of the judgment “because it isn’t a surprise”.

Until now, EU treaties had been silent on how the article 50 process could be halted. That was challenged a year ago by a cross-party group of eight pro-remain Scottish MSPs, MPs and MEPs funded by donations to a London-based legal campaign, the Good Law Project, run by the QC Jolyon Maugham.

The Scottish National party MEP Alyn Smith, one of those who brought the case, described the ruling as “dynamite”.

“The timing is sublime,” he said. “As colleagues in the House of Commons consider Mrs May’s disastrous deal we now have a roadmap out of this Brexit shambles. A bright light has switched on above an ‘Exit’ sign.”

Andy Wightman, the Scottish Green party MSP who led the legal challenge, tweeted that it was a “clear and unambiguous” ruling “which upholds our arguments. Having read submissions and heard evidence, there really was no other legal option.”

FULL CJEU #article50 ruling now published. Clear & unambiguous. Upholds our arguments. Having read submissions & heard evidence, there really was no other legal option. https://t.co/jDosCgCgj2 pic.twitter.com/bE7AcvoTQd

The case was debated in 14 separate hearings and appeals at the court of session, which is Scotland’s civil court, the supreme court in London and the ECJ.

It was thrown out twice by Scottish judges who backed the UK government’s claims that the issue was hypothetical since May had no intention of revoking article 50, only for their decisions to be overturned on appeal.

The European court said last week that Sánchez-Bordona disagreed. He believed “the dispute is genuine, the question is not merely academic, nor premature or superfluous, but has obvious practical importance and is essential in order to resolve the dispute”.

After fast-tracking its review, the ECJ said it should remain the sovereign right of a member state to cancel its withdrawal application before it came into force, in the same way it had a right to start the withdrawal process.

In another boost to remain campaigners, the court added that if the UK did abandon Brexit, it should have no effect on the terms of its membership.

Aidan O’Neill QC, the lawyer who led the case for the parliamentarians, said that finding would preserve the UK’s existing opt-outs on the social chapter and the Schengen internal security treaty, its greater flexibility on VAT rules, its rebate and its decision not to join the euro.

The court said: “The revocation by a member state of the notification of its intention to withdraw reflects a sovereign decision to retain its status as a member state of the European Union, a status which is neither suspended nor altered by that notification.”

The judges said the European commission had no right to block a decision by the UK to abandon the Brexit process, since that amounted to the EU forcing a member state to leave against its will.

Joanna Cherry QC, an SNP MP who took part in the action, said: “[The UK government] fought us every inch of the way in this case, so it’s a particularly sweet irony that Scottish parliamentarians and the Scottish courts have provided this lifeline to the UK parliament at this moment of crisis.”

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