A senior European legal official just gave some hope to those hoping Britain’s departure from the European Union could still be called off. The advocate general of the European Court of Justice issued an opinion Tuesday that Britain retains the right to reverse Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism by which states withdraw from the EU. The opinion was sought by a group of Scottish politicians, and while the advocate general’s guidance isn’t binding, the court generally follows it. It also backs up the stated position of EU leaders that membership is still open to Britain if it changes its mind.
For now, this is academic. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Theresa May said the guidance would not have any impact on the “clear position of the government that Article 50 is not going to be revoked.” But what’s become clear over the past two years is that no one really knows how any of this works, and “clear positions” can get cloudy in a hurry.
Next week, on Dec. 11, Parliament will vote on May’s controversial Brexit deal. If it passes, it will define the terms of the U.K.’s exit from the EU on March 29. But that seems unlikely. May’s deal, which would indefinitely keep Britain in a customs union with the EU, limiting its ability to set its own trade policy, is unpopular with both hard-line Brexiteers in her own party and the opposition Labour Party. If Parliament rejects the deal, it’s not clear what happens. The opposition Labour Party might call for a snap election, and May’s coalition partner, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which loathes her deal, looks likely to drop its support, costing her the parliamentary majority.
There are also growing calls for a second referendum on Brexit, or a “people’s vote,” as supporters have dubbed it. Polls show a narrow margin of voters would now likely vote to remain if another vote were held. (Although, for what it’s worth, polls showed that last time as well.) The Scottish National Party, the third largest party in Parliament, supports holding another referendum, as does London Mayor Sadiq Khan and former Prime Ministers Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, and John Major. Almost 700,000 people marched in London to demand a people’s vote in October, the largest demonstrations since the Iraq war. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime EU skeptic, has been reluctant about the idea but has been softening his position amid calls for a new vote among party members. Even May seemed to open the door a bit when speaking to the House of Commons a few weeks ago, saying, “We can choose to leave with no deal, we can risk no Brexit at all, or we can choose to unite and support the best deal that can be negotiated.”
There’s probably not enough time to hold a new referendum before March 29, so Brexit would have to be postponed. It still seems very unlikely this is going to happen, and the political backlash from Brexit supporters would be massive and bitter, but the country is fast running out of alternatives.
The case for the people’s vote is that voters were not presented with the full consequences of Brexit the first time around. It’s also been bolstered by reports about the flood of Russian fake news that overtook British social media last time around.
The Russians aside, it’s obvious now that the Remain side didn’t do an adequate job of countering misinformation or presenting a compelling case for the dangers of Brexit in 2016. For instance, the Irish border issue, which has proved to be the biggest stumbling block in negotiations, barely came up at all in the campaign. It’s fair to say that the Brexit British voters are getting is far from the one they were promised, but it’s also fair to ask why Remainers were unable to make that case the first time.