LUXEMBOURG/LONDON: The European Union's top court ruled on Monday that the United Kingdom can unilaterally revoke its divorce notice, raising the hopes of pro-Europeans ahead of a crucial vote in the British parliament on Prime Minister Theresa May's divorce deal.
Just 36 hours before British lawmakers vote on May's deal, the Court of Justice said in an emergency judgment that London could revoke its Article 50 formal divorce notice with no penalty.
May's government said the ruling means nothing because it has no intention of reversing its decision to leave the EU on March 29. But critics of her deal say the ruling provides options -- either to delay Brexit and renegotiate withdrawal terms, or cancel it if British voters change their minds.
The timing of the ruling on the eve of the British parliamentary vote was not a coincidence: the court said it had ruled with unprecedented haste to ensure that British lawmakers would understand their options.
It also defied the EU's own executive, which had argued permission was needed from other EU states to stop Brexit. Britain could stay with no penalty, it ruled, despite some European leaders saying it should have to give up perks agreed over the years, such as a valuable rebate on its dues.
"The United Kingdom is free to revoke unilaterally the notification of its intention to withdraw from the EU," it said. "Such a revocation, decided in accordance with its own national constitutional requirements, would have the effect that the United Kingdom remains in the EU under terms that are unchanged."
Arriving to meet EU counterparts in Brussels, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the ruling "irrelevant". The majority of British voters, who decided in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU, would be "shocked and very angry" if Brexit were halted.
But Alyn Smith, a Scottish nationalist member of the European Parliament and one of the Brexit opponents who had brought the case to the top EU court in Luxembourg, said the ruling "sends a clear message to UK MPs ahead of tomorrow's vote that there is a way out of this mess".
The future of Brexit remains deeply uncertain as dozens of lawmakers -- both those who back a cleaner break with the EU and those who want closer ties -- have publicly promised to vote down May's divorce deal.
Opponents say the deal could keep Britain subject to some EU rules indefinitely, even after it gives up its influence over setting them. May's government says the terms are the only way to exit while protecting the supply chains of British business. Both Brussels and London say there is no scope to renegotiate.
In the June 23, 2016 referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52 percent, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48 percent, backed staying. Polls suggest a re-run would still be close, although some older voters, who mainly voted to leave, have died and young people who mostly want to stay have reached voting age.
Campaigners hoping to stop Brexit have been buoyed in recent weeks as May herself warned that if her deal was defeated then the United Kingdom could face either a no deal Brexit or no Brexit at all.
Both May's ruling Conservatives and the main opposition Labour Party are publicly committed to carrying out Brexit. But a no-deal Brexit is seen as so disruptive that parliament would be under strong pressure to block it.
A growing number of backbench members of parliament says the only way out may be a new referendum, an option publicly backed by three of the four living former prime ministers.
Michael Gove, the most prominent Brexit campaigner in the British government, said the ruling "doesn't alter either the referendum vote or the clear intention of the government to leave on March 29".
"We don't want to stay in the EU," Gove, who serves as environment minister, told BBC radio. "We voted very clearly. 17.4 million people sent a clear message that we wanted to leave the European Union and that also means leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
British newspapers have reported that May could delay the Dec. 11 vote on her deal. The Northern Irish party which props up her government has suggested she should dash to Brussels to clinch better terms. The EU says the agreement is the best it can offer and its substance cannot be changed.
Gove said the vote would go ahead as planned. Current forecasts indicate May's deal will be defeated, a step that would thrust the government's Brexit plans into confusion.