November 7, 2018 / 8:48 AM / 10 days ago

EU court sets November 27 hearing on Brexit reversal case

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - Judges at the European Union’s highest court will hear a case on the Brexit process on Nov. 27, reviewing whether Britain could unilaterally withdraw its decision to leave the EU, the Court of Justice said in a statement on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Protesters participate in an anti-Brexit demonstration at City Hall in central Belfast, Northern Ireland October 20, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

The case was raised to the Luxembourg justices by a Scottish court, where politicians opposed to Brexit asked for a ruling to clarify the interpretation of Article 50 of the EU treaty, under which London last year gave two years’ notice of its departure.

No other member state has ever left the 60-year-old bloc.

Establishing that reversing the Brexit process can be done without the approval of other EU states would, argue those who brought the case, boost their argument that British lawmakers should block the withdrawal before it happens on March 29.

It is not clear when the ECJ might rule on the issue, known as the Wightman Case after Andy Wightman, a member of the Scottish parliament from the Green party, who led the action.

A court official said that typically, under the court’s “expedited procedure” for urgent matters, a ruling would be made three to six months after such a hearing. However, the ECJ noted in an order last month that there was “undeniably” a need for an urgent ruling before the British parliament votes on whether or not to accept a treaty with the EU setting out divorce terms.

British Prime Minister Theresa May insists that Britain will leave the EU in March. But she faces a battle in parliament to approve any potential treaty, on which negotiations are deadlocked over how to manage the Irish border. In principle, she could seek a parliamentary vote as early as this month.

A leaked government memo published by the BBC on Tuesday suggested that the date of the Luxembourg hearing, Nov. 27, could be exactly the day that May asks lawmakers to vote — leaving the ECJ’s opinion in the matter moot.

A spokeswoman for May’s government said that it was seeking to appeal the decision by Scotland’s Court of Session to go to the ECJ at Britain’s Supreme Court. “It remains a matter of firm policy that we will not be revoking the Article 50 notice, and we will not comment further on ongoing litigation,” she added.

On Tuesday, the government said it had submitted written observations to the ECJ, restating its position that the court should dismiss the case as it has long refused to rule on hypothetical questions or provide advisory opinions.

Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty sets a two-year limit for a state to negotiate a withdrawal treaty with the EU. That treaty must be approved by a specially calculated majority of the other member states. The article also says the two-year negotiation period can be extended if all other states agree.

It does not address the issue of whether the country asking to leave can simply change its mind and retain membership without seeking the approval of the other EU countries.

Reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; editing by David Stamp

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