SHARE
COPY LINK

BREXIT

UK can cancel Brexit before March 29th without EU’s consent, ECJ rules

A new option has become available to the UK in the Brexit process as the European Court of Justice ruled that revoking Article 50 unilaterally is a possibility.

UK can cancel Brexit before March 29th without EU’s consent, ECJ rules
File Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has judged that the UK is free, should the government choose to, to “revoke unilaterally” its notification to withdraw from the European Union.

The judicial review was lodged in the EU’s Court of Session, First Division in Scotland by a cross-section of lawyers, MPs and MEPs from the UK Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the European Parliament.

The judicial review was led by the Good Law Project, whose director Jolyon Maugham QC released a statement calling the ECJ’s decision “arguably the most important case in modern domestic legal history.” The Good Law Project was not supported by Labour or the Conservatives: “The tiny Good Law Project and six brave Scottish Parliamentarians have taken on the Government, the other 27 Member States and the Commission – and won,” added the statement.

The review was lodged in 2017 “to determine whether the notification referred to in Article 50 can be revoked unilaterally before the expiry of the two-year period, with the effect that such revocation would result in the United Kingdom remaining in the EU,” clarifies a press statement by the ECJ on Monday December 10th.

The option to revoke the withdrawal notification “exists for as long as the withdrawal agreement concluded between the EU and that Member State has not entered into force,” or, in the case of no ratified agreement, before the expiry of the two-year notification period from the date Article 50 was activated.

The UK notified the EU of its desire to exit the bloc by activating Article 50 on March 29th 2017 and would therefore be free, should the draft exit agreement not be ratified by the UK Parliament and the European Parliament, to revoke its notification to leave before March 29th 2019.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is still keen to go ahead with the UK’s departure as her embattled government faces a decisive vote in the UK Parliament tomorrow that could well decide the direction the Brexit process could take. UK and EU negotiators have agreed on a draft Brexit agreement that would settle certain issues related to the future relationship, including on trade, the reciprocal rights of citizens and certain issues of regulation.

READ ALSO: 'It's better than no deal': Do Brits in Europe hope Theresa May wins Brexit vote

Many observers, however, believe PM May will face a humiliating defeat in Parliament on Tuesday, December 11th, when MPs vote on that deal. This could force May to either seek a renegotiation with the EU or to request an extension to the Article 50 period beyond March next year. Worse still for her, the decision could contribute to the possibility of a vote of no-confidence in her leadership or a general election.
Should a UK government decide to revoke Article 50, the UK’s EU membership would be confirmed and its status as a Member State would remain unchanged. The withdrawal process, in such a scenario, would be brought to an end, the ECJ further clarified.

The UK’s Parliament is notoriously divided on the issue of Brexit and the news that the whole process could be cancelled with a few strokes of a pen will no doubt encourage those seeking a People’s Vote, a second referendum on the UK's exit from the European Union.

READ ALSO: 'Brexit won't happen': Why not all Brits in France are panicking about the future

MPs in favour of the UK remaining in the EU welcomed the ECJ’s clarification. “A simple way out of the Brexit chaos is available,” tweeted Richard Corbett, leader of the Labour MEPs. “This is hugely important. We can now stop Brexit quickly, with no loss of existing rights & benefits,” commented Labour Peer Andrew Adonis.

The First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon suggested an extension of Article 50 to allow time for another referendum, followed by a revocation, are options “now available to the House of Commons.”

READ MORE: Pensions and healthcare: UK offers assurances to Brits in EU over no-deal Brexit

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

BREXIT

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Brexit really does mean that Britons are no longer EU citizens. Claudia Delpero looks at whether there's any other way they can keep their rights.

Is new court ruling the end for Britons fighting to remain EU citizens?

The Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed on Thursday that Britons lost EU citizenship when the UK left the EU, on 1st February 2020. 

It is the first time the EU’s top court has rules on the matter, after a number of legal cases challenged this specific Brexit outcome. The decision also sets a precedent should other countries decide to leave the bloc in the future. 

What has the EU Court decided?

The Court of Justice decided on a case brought by a British woman living in France.

Before Brexit, she could vote and stand as a candidate in her town of residence, Thoux. But after the UK withdrawal from the EU, she was removed from the electoral roll and excluded from the municipal elections that took place in March 2020, during the transition period.  

As the mayor refused her appeal to restore the registration, she took the case to the regional court in Auch, which agreed to request an interpretation of the rules to the EU top court. 

Julien Fouchet, the barrister supporting her and several other cases on the EU citizenship of British nationals, argued that the loss of EU citizenship and voting rights was disproportionate. It would also be contrary to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, given that the woman also lost her voting rights in the UK, having lived abroad for more than 15 years.

Alice Bouillez, who has lived in France since 1984 and is married to a French national, could have applied for French citizenship, but did not do so because she said “this was not necessary” before Brexit and, as a former UK official, she had taken an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

On Thursday the Court of Justice announced the decision about her case. The court ruled that the “possession of the nationality of a member state is an essential condition for a person to be able to acquire and retain the status of citizen of the Union and to benefit fully from the rights attaching to that status.”

The court therefore confirmed that British nationals automatically lost their EU citizenship as a result of Brexit and, as a consequence, Britons also lost their voting and electoral rights in municipal elections in the EU (unless the country where they live set different rules). 

What is EU citizenship?

EU citizenship was introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, when borders were opening and the bloc was integrating economically after the end of the Cold War. 

Under the treaty, every person holding the nationality of an EU member state is a citizen of the Union. EU citizenship is additional and does not replace nationality, the treaty specifies. But this creates the first form of a transnational citizenship that grants rights across borders.

EU citizens have the right to access each other’s territory, job market and services under the principle of non-discrimination. If they are economically active, they have the right to reside in other EU states and be joined by family members, access healthcare at the same conditions of nationals (for emergency treatment also when travelling temporarily), obtain social security benefits and see their professional qualifications recognised.

Beyond free movement, at the core of EU citizenship there are also political rights, such as participating in the European Parliament election, voting and standing as candidates in municipal elections when living in other EU countries, receiving consular protection from other EU states outside the EU, and taking part in European Citizens’ Initiatives asking to the EU to legislate on certain matters. 

Which EU citizenship rights have Britons lost with Brexit? 

For British citizens who were living in the EU before Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement protects some of these rights. Britons covered by deal have their residence, access to work and education, healthcare, social security and qualifications secured, but only in the country where they were living before Brexit.

But the right to free movement in other EU states, consular protection in third countries, and the political rights attached to EU citizenship were lost, the Court confirmed. 

For British citizens in the UK, the trade and cooperation agreement has preserved some social security rights and, in theory, the possibility to have professional qualifications recognized when moving to an EU country. These provisions however lack details and may take a long time before they work in practice. 

As the “European Union” no longer features on British passports, the possibility to access EU lanes at airports to skip passport control queues has also vanished. 

“The loss of those treasured rights has been clear to those of us living in the EU from the early days of Brexit. But for Brits in the UK, the realities of life outside the EU, and the consequences of Brexit, are only just dawning. Long queues at the borders, roaming charges, obstacles to working abroad, etc. are the new reality,” said Sue Wilson, Chair of the group Remain in Spain. 

While she said the court’s decision was “no real surprise,” she argued that “this is not the Brexit the public were promised, or that the majority voted for.”

Can British citizens get some of these rights back?

Julien Fouchet was disappointed at the Court decision and promised to continue the legal fight, bringing the case at the European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution). 

Other two cases on the matter of EU citizenship for British nationals are still pending at the Court of Justice of the EU. One of them aims to determine whether EU citizenship is a “fundamental status” that cannot be removed but Thursday’s decision could have already provided the answer.

Another option to reconsider some of the rights is the renegotiation of EU-UK trade agreement, when it will be reviewed in 2025. 

Meanwhile, the EU is revising the rules for non-EU citizens living in EU countries on a long-term basis, making it easier to move across borders. 

Applying for citizenship is so far the only option to regain voting rights, although not all EU countries allow dual nationality. 

Sue Wilson, who has long campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU, said: “There is only one way to restore the loss of our rights, and that’s to rejoin the single market, rejoin the customs union, and eventually, rejoin the European Union… Until that day, we will continue to be second class citizens whose rights have been diminished for the sake of an ideology.”

SHOW COMMENTS