A top official at the European Union’s highest court advised Tuesday that Britain can unilaterally change its mind about leaving the European Union, boosting hopes among to pro-EU campaigners in the U.K. that Brexit can be stopped.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s government insists it will never reverse the decision to leave, but May faces a tough battle to win backing in Parliament before lawmakers vote next week on whether to accept or reject the divorce agreement negotiated with the bloc. Defeat would leave the U.K. facing a chaotic “no-deal” Brexit and could topple the prime minister, her government, or both.
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In a U.K. parliamentary first, British lawmakers have found the government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to publish advice from the country’s top law officer about Brexit.
The House of Commons voted 311-293 Tuesday in favour of a motion by opposition parties censuring the government for failing to reveal the full guidance from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, despite an earlier vote by Parliament calling them to do so.
Labour Party Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said the contempt finding was “unprecedented,” and the government said it would now publish the advice.
The vote has little direct impact on the Brexit debate, but reflects mounting tension between the government and Parliament over the next steps in Brexit.
Parliament is set to begin debating the divorce deal agreed between the government and the European Union, before a vote on Dec. 11.
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Advocate General Manuel Campos Sanchez-Bordona told the European Court of Justice that a decision by the British government to change its mind about invoking the countdown to departure would be legally valid. The advice of the advocate general is often, but not always, followed by the full court.
The court is assessing the issue under an accelerated procedure, since Britain is due to leave the bloc on March 29. The final verdict is expected within weeks.
Britain voted in 2016 to leave the 28-nation bloc, and invoked Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty in March 2017, triggering a two-year exit process. Article 50 is scant on details — largely because the idea of any country leaving the bloc was considered unlikely — so a group of Scottish legislators asked the courts to rule on whether the U.K. can pull out of the withdrawal procedure on its own.
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The EU’s governing Commission and Council oppose unilateral revocation, arguing it requires unanimous agreement of the 27 remaining members of the bloc.
The court’s advocate general said that Article 50 “allows the unilateral revocation of the notification of the intention to withdraw from the EU.”
The advice bolstered anti-Brexit campaigners, who hope the decision to leave can be reversed.
“That puts the decision about our future back into the hands of our own elected representatives — where it belongs,” said Jo Maugham, a British lawyer who helped bring the case.
May has repeatedly said the government will not seek to delay or reverse Brexit.
But the court’s opinion is another headache for the Conservative prime minister as she battles to win Parliament’s backing for the divorce deal she has agreed with the EU.