How to Annoy Europe: Cancel Brexit

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The top European court now is highly likely to rule that the U.K. 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 U.K. 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 percent chance of being echoed in the eventual ruling.

According to Campos Sanchez-Bordona, the U.K. (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 Brexiters. 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 honor the 2016 vote to leave. And yet, anything is possible in the current political environment.

It might seem that the EU would welcome the U.K. back with open arms if Brexit were canceled. “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 U.K. would stay. But whether it’s really desirable for the EU to keep the U.K. within the fold is another matter.

Even before Brexit was on the agenda, the U.K. wasn’t exactly popular in the bloc. According to a 2017 paper by Marco Fantini and Klaas Staal, the U.K. 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. 

Even though the level of agreement in the European Council has been generally high and the U.K. has only dissented in about every eighth case, it voted against the majority most frequently on budgets, foreign and security policy and international development. These are especially important areas for the EU today, given plans for a budget reform that would link funding to a country’s support for common European values, Europe’s weakening ties with Donald Trump’s U.S. and the imperative of increasing foreign aid to reduce immigration. The bigger EU powers face plenty of opposition on these fronts from Eastern European nationalist governments; a non-exiting U.K. would mess up all the political calculations French and German politicians have based on Brexit.

Besides, the U.K. 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 U.K.’s exiting experience after what they’ve seen in the last two years, keeping the U.K. in the 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 Prime Minister Theresa May’s government and the European Council, protects the EU-27 from most of the economic risks associated with the U.K. departure and even creates favorable conditions for some European services industries, especially the financial industry. They’d never put it this way, but letting the U.K. 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 U.K. stays and continues to undermine every attempt to bring member states closer together, especially on terms favored by France and Germany.

The opinion means the U.K. 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 Brexiters 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.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.