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Britain could remain a member of the EU indefinitely, without losing its budget rebate or incurring any other “cost or difficulty”, the man who oversaw the drafting of Article 50 said on Friday.
John Kerr, a former head of the UK diplomatic service, said British voters were being misled by Brexiters’ claims that the exit process could not legally be stopped, on the basis that prime minister Theresa May had already begun formal negotiations with Brussels.
Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which sets out the legal process for leaving the EU and which Mrs May triggered in March, is not explicit about whether a notification to leave can be withdrawn.
The European Commission has said the notification “cannot be unilaterally reversed”, suggesting it would at least need the backing of the EU’s 27 remaining member states.
Several EU leaders, including the council president Donald Tusk and the French president Emmanuel Macron, have said they would welcome the UK changing its mind about Brexit.
The matter is political, as well as legal: remaining in the EU would mean overturning a referendum that the Leave campaign won by a margin of 17.4m votes to 16.1m.
Lord Kerr told an event organised by the pro-EU Open Britain campaign that he was merely making the “technician’s point” that there was no legal impediment to the exit process being stopped.
He noted the UK government had refused to publish its legal advice on the matter. “I think we know why . . . Government spokesmen have consistently said only that ‘as a matter of firm policy’, we won’t take [the Article 50 notification to leave] back. That formula in itself confirms that we could take it back,” he added.
In response, the UK Department for Exiting the EU said: “We have always been clear that Article 50 will not be revoked.”
The department has set “exit day” as 11pm London time on March 29, 2019, meaning that Britain would not request an extension to the two-year negotiating period established by Article 50.
The date will be included in the EU withdrawal bill, which returns to the Commons for scrutiny by MPs on Tuesday.
Separately, George Bridges, who resigned as a Brexit minister in June, said the government needed to admit that there was only a “slim chance” of a trade deal with the EU being agreed before March 2019.
Lord Bridges added that “it is completely unfeasible and unrealistic to think that Brexit could be reversed without a general election”. If it were possible, “the EU may well exact a price”.
Lord Kerr disagreed with that view in his speech, noting that the UK’s EU rebate — worth almost £4bn last year — could be amended only if all member states agree. “While we remain a member state, we would not agree to drop the rebate, and since we are entitled to remain a member state, we could not be forced to do so,” he said.
Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister, told the BBC that Brexit talks would reach a crisis point next summer, at which Britain might change its mind if “a game-changer” could be offered to Leave voters.
An Opinium poll last month found 35 per cent of voters wanted a second referendum on the Brexit deal, compared with 53 per cent who did not.