How to stick it to Europe: scrap Brexit

How to stick it to Europe: scrap Brexit

The top European court now is highly likely to rule that the UK can cancel Brexit unilaterally. For all the domestic political hurdles such a move would face, it's intriguing to ponder how Europe would take it if the UK did cancel Brexit, and what the consequences would be for the European Union.

Last year, a group of Scottish lawmakers asked a court in Scotland whether, having initiated an EU exit procedure under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, a country can revoke the decision without other member states' consent.

The court referred the question to the European Court of Justice in October. The Brexit ministry's attempts to derail the proceedings failed, and on Tuesday, ECJ Advocate-General Manuel Campos Sanchez-Bordona delivered his opinion, which, based on previous ECJ practice, has a 70% chance of being echoed in the eventual ruling.

According to Mr Campos Sanchez-Bordona, the UK (and any other member state that might follow in its footsteps) can revoke its Article 50 procedure within two years after it began and before a formal withdrawal treaty is signed.

He pointed out that under Article 50, a country only declares its "intention", not its decision, to exit. So ending the process, according to the advocate-general, would be a manifestation of the withdrawing state's sovereignty -- a word especially dear to Brexiteers. Consent from other EU members isn't needed.

For the time being, the matter is purely academic. Both Theresa May's Conservatives and the Labour Party opposition in Britain have pledged to honour the result of the 2016 referendum vote to leave. And yet, anything is possible in the current political environment.

It might seem that the EU would welcome the UK back with open arms if Brexit were cancelled. "The door remains open," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk have often said.

The leaders of Germany and France, the EU's most influential countries, have also expressed hope that the UK would stay. But whether it's really desirable for the EU to keep the UK within the fold is another matter.

Even before Brexit was on the agenda, the UK wasn't exactly popular in the bloc. According to a 2017 paper by Marco Fantini and Klaas Staal, the UK has been the country that has garnered the least support from other member states in the European Council, which consists of national leaders, meaning its policy preferences have been the least aligned with those of other member states. In recent years, it's been by far the most outvoted country in the council.

Besides, the UK is the EU member state with the most opt-outs from EU agreements. It refuses to think about joining the euro or the common border area, and it's haggled relentlessly over every EU project that required giving up even a small part of its sovereignty.

Though few countries will want to repeat the UK's exiting experience after what they've seen in the last two years, keeping the UK in the regional bloc with all its opt-outs may prompt sovereignist governments to try British-style cherry-picking.

For France and Germany, the Brexit story is about setting precedents and examples. The exit deal, as currently approved by Ms May's government and the European Council, protects the EU-27 from most of the economic risks associated with the UK departure and even creates favourable conditions for some European services industries, especially the financial industry.

They'd never put it this way, but letting the UK leave on the basis of this deal sets a clear precedent. It demonstrates that in place of close economic ties, leavers get what former Bank of England governor Mervyn King calls "perpetual subordination".

In that sense, it's a better outcome than if the UK stays and continues to undermine every attempt to bring member states closer together, especially on terms favoured by France and Germany.

The opinion means the UK has a wonderful opportunity to stick it to the Germans, the French and the Brussels bureaucracy -- by abandoning Brexit and remaining as a perpetual headache for everyone Brexiteers despise.

It would be a powerful strike for British sovereignty which would make EU leaders regret they hadn't been more careful what they wished for in their public statements -- but not in their hearts. - Bloomberg Opinion


Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

Leonid Bershidsky

Bloomberg View columnist

Bloomberg View columnist based in Berlin.


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