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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

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BRITS IN EUROPE

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.

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