Brexit is reversible and Britons should be given the right to change their minds, the man who helped write the rule book on leaving the European Union said.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s letter in March, which triggered Britain’s departure under Article 50 of the bloc’s Lisbon Treaty, can be unilaterally withdrawn, John Kerr said in a speech in London Friday. Kerr played a key role in drafting the exit clause as secretary-general of the European Constitutional Convention in 2002-2003.
“We are not required to withdraw just because May sent her letter,” Kerr told an event hosted by Open Britain, a pro-EU pressure group. “We can change our minds at any stage during the process.”
Brexit negotiations resumed in Brussels on Thursday and the resignation of two members of May’s Cabinet in the space of a week has sparked concerns among European diplomats. While there are signs both sides want to reach an agreement by year-end, the Europeans are taking a cautious approach.
While Britain must negotiate an exit by March 2019, the Article 50 letter only states an “intention” to withdraw, Kerr said. European legal experts and figures including EU President Donald Tusk and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani have all indicated the U.K. can change its mind, and would be welcomed back.
“We still have all the rights of a member state, including the right to change our minds,” Kerr said. “I am concerned that some aspects of the article seem to me rather inadequately reflected, or indeed misinterpreted, in our current public debate.”
Kerr also said that most EU leaders think Brexit “would be a disaster, worst for us, but bad for all.”
“If we were to change our minds, Putin and Trump would be disappointed, but our near neighbors, and our true friends across the Atlantic and in the Commonwealth, would cheer,” he said. “I think the country should know that.”
The European Commission said that it was the U.K.’s decision to trigger Article 50 and that “once triggered, it cannot be unilaterally reversed. Article 50 does not provide for the unilateral withdrawal of the notification.”
In private, EU officials say it is legally possible to revoke the clause. But there’s disagreement over whether this would need unanimous agreement of the bloc’s leaders. In any case, it’s unlikely the EU would oppose any U.K. decision to reverse its decision.
Kerr also said the EU would grant Britain an extension, should Parliament need more time to consider a final deal, or decide to call another election or another referendum. Seeking extra time to work out a deadlocked financial negotiation may not receive such unanimous consent, he added.
“I am uneasy that the country isn’t being told much about the possibility of taking more time,” Kerr said. “I don’t know why both government and opposition now seem to discount the possibility of our seeking an extension. Much would depend on our perceived motive.”
The U.K. government has repeatedly said that it has no intention of changing course, and that it will leave the bloc in March 2019 to respect the result of the 2016 referendum.