(CN) — Great Britain was gripped by uncertainty, political drama and chaos Monday as Tory Prime Minister Theresa May postponed a Parliament vote on whether to accept or reject her plan to leave the European Union.
An expedited ruling Monday from the European Court of Justice added more fuel to the turbulence. Europe’s highest court ruled that Britain can unilaterally revoke its decision to withdraw from the European Union. It’s a ruling that could both hinder and help May.
The ruling, though, was overshadowed by May ‘s announcement to delay a vote scheduled for Tuesday. She said she would seek assurances from European officials that Northern Ireland would not fall under EU rules and customs indefinitely. The question of how to keep the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland free of border checks has been a major sticking point in negotiations over Britain’s departure from the EU.
But it’s far from clear what kind of assurances May might be able to get from the EU. An EU spokeswoman on Monday said in a news briefing that the deal could not be renegotiated and that this was “the best and only deal possible.”
Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, a London think tank, said it was unlikely EU leaders would give May “more than very minor changes to her deal” and that the aspects over Northern Ireland would remain “unaltered.”
Britain is set to leave the EU on March 29, 2019. May did not say when a vote may occur, but it may end up being pushed back until January or later, news reports said.
The pound sterling plummeted to a 20-month low on Monday and business leaders urged lawmakers to strike a deal. The head of CBI, a major business organization in Britain, warned of a national crisis if a deal cannot be sealed soon. The organization said businesses need clarity about the future.
Concerns are rising that Britain could end up exiting the EU without a deal and be forced to interact with Europe along World Trade Organization rules. The Bank of England warned in November that such a scenario could cause an 8-percent drop in economic growth and a loss of a quarter of the sterling’s value.
In advance of the vote, it was widely believed that May’s deal with the EU was doomed and that the House of Commons would vote it down. Many members of May’s Conservative Party feel the deal the prime minister struck gives far too many concessions to the EU and ties Britain to EU rules indefinitely.
The vote was scheduled for Tuesday evening. A loss could leave the prime minister facing a leadership challenge and even the prospect of new elections. The main opposition, the Labour Party, is seeking to bring the Tory government down.
In its ruling, the European Court in Luxembourg said a nation can decide to withdraw from the EU on its own and also can revoke that decision unilaterally. A cross-party group of Scottish lawmakers opposed to Brexit sought clarification on this point to help members of the House of Commons decide how to vote on withdrawal from the EU.
Alyn Smith, a Scottish National Party member in the European Parliament, hailed the ruling as a victory as Britain was poised to decide the fate of Brexit. He was among the lawmakers who brought the case.
“The timing is sublime,” Smith said in a statement. “We now have a roadmap out of this Brexit shambles.”
But the ruling may also be used by May’s government to pressure doubters in the House of Commons to back her Brexit plans or face seeing Britain remain within the EU. Opponents to Brexit are calling for a second referendum, in which voters could opt to stay in the EU.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a prominent Tory and leader of Conservatives opposed to May’s Brexit deal, said in a radio interview that the ruling would not change many lawmakers’ minds.
The British government and EU officials opposed the arguments brought by the Scottish lawmakers.
May’s government argued that the European Court should not have taken up what it called a “hypothetical and academic” case because the government had no intention to revoke its decision.
The Independent newspaper cited a government spokesperson who said the ruling will not change the government’s position to leave the EU.
The European Commission, the EU’s principal executive body, and the European Council, an EU organ made up of the heads of states which decides policy and makes appointments, argued that revocation should be permitted only when all the other states in the EU agree to allow it.
The EU argued that letting nations withdraw and then take back that decision could become a way to extract concessions from the EU — making it a means of “leverage in negotiations.”
But the court rejected these arguments and said that rescinding a decision to withdraw was part of a nation’s sovereignty.
The court said a nation could be forced to withdraw from the EU even though it didn’t want to if other nations had to approve its revocation.
“Such a result would be inconsistent with the aims and values” of the EU’s founding treaties, the court said. Those treaties, it said, have the “purpose of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.”
The European Court’s ruling cannot be appealed and will be sent back to a Scottish court.
Britain voted to leave the EU in the summer of 2016 in a nonbinding referendum. Since then, British politics have been dominated by how to carry out its divorce from the EU.
The House of Commons was expected to vote on a plan that keeps Britain closely tied to EU rules, trade and customs until a new trade agreement can be hammered out. On Monday, the anger over May’s plans were on full display during a debate with numerous opposition lawmakers calling for a second referendum and denouncing May’s leadership.
Under May’s deal with the EU, Northern Ireland could remain within EU rules indefinitely, to keep the free flow of goods and people between Ireland and Northern Ireland intact. This possibility is a source of major contention because it could mean Northern Ireland would be left abiding by different rules than the rest of Britain. Many in Scotland, for example, argue that this would give Northern Ireland an economic advantage. Others in Northern Ireland argue that they would suffer disadvantages.
Britain has agreed to pay up to about $49 billion as part of its divorce from the EU. This sum covers funds that EU nations contribute to the bloc and future liabilities, such as pensions for EU civil servants.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.