Diplomat John Kerr, who oversaw the drafting of Article 50, says the British are free to reverse Brexit at any time and they are being misled.

The day British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, she told the British parliament that there was
The day British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, she told the British parliament that there was "no turning back." (Reuters)

British Prime Minister Theresa May should stop misleading voters and admit that Brexit can be avoided if Britain decides unilaterally to scrap divorce talks, the man who drafted Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty said on Friday.

May, who formally notified the European Union of Britain’s intention to leave the EU by triggering Article 50 of the treaty on March 29, said she would not tolerate any attempt in parliament to block Brexit. She insisted that the United Kingdom would be leaving the EU at 2300 GMT on March 29 2019.

By triggering Article 50, May set the clock ticking on a two-year exit process that has so far failed to yield a divorce deal. The process was further interrupted by her gamble on a snap election in June which cost her party its majority in parliament.

"While the divorce talks proceed, the parties are still married. Reconciliation is still possible," John Kerr, British ambassador to the EU from 1990 to 1995, said in a speech in London.

"We can change our minds at any stage during the process," said Kerr, who added that the legalities of Article 50 had been misrepresented in Britain. "The British people have the right to know this: they shouldn't be misled."

Kerr, who in 2002-2003 acted as secretary-general of the European Constitutional Convention that drafted Article 50, said the debate had been misrepresented inside Britain: it was clear, he said, that May's Article 50 letter could be revoked.

Ever since the referendum, opponents of Britain's exit have suggested Britain could change its mind and avoid what they say will be disastrous consequences for the British economy.
Ever since the referendum, opponents of Britain's exit have suggested Britain could change its mind and avoid what they say will be disastrous consequences for the British economy. (Reuters)

The 256-word clause does not say whether it can be revoked once it is invoked. This means that, if lawyers ask for clarification, the question would have to go to the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court.

In a June 2016 referendum, 51.9 percent of voters backed leaving the EU while 48.1 percent wanted to remain.

Brexit supporters argue any attempt to halt the exit process would be anti-democratic, while opponents say the country should have a right to pass final judgement on any exit deal negotiated.

May, an initial opponent of Brexit who won the top job in the political turmoil that followed the vote, said last month that Britain would not revoke Article 50.

Supporters of Brexit have repeatedly said that any attempt to have another referendum, or to undermine Brexit, would catapult the world's fifth-largest economy into crisis.

Thus far, there are few signs of a change of heart on Brexit in opinion polls. Both May's Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party now explicitly support leaving the EU, which Britain joined in 1973.

Ireland notes slow progress

Ireland's foreign minister warned on Friday there was still "a way to go" in Brexit talks on the Irish border and welcomed an EU paper suggesting Britain needs to avoid "regulatory divergence" with the bloc if it wants to maintain a soft border.

"I think that there is a way to go between the two negotiating teams to be able to provide credible answers and sufficient progress in the context of the Irish border before we can move on to Phase Two," Coveney told Irish state broadcaster RTE.

"While we welcome the language we get from the British government in the context of north-south challenges ... there has always been a scepticism on how we are going to get there in the context of the British approach to Brexit as a whole."

The future EU/UK land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is one of three issues – along with the exit bill and safeguarding expatriate rights – that Brussels wants broadly solved before it decides in December whether to give the green light to move on to talks on future trade relations.
The future EU/UK land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is one of three issues – along with the exit bill and safeguarding expatriate rights – that Brussels wants broadly solved before it decides in December whether to give the green light to move on to talks on future trade relations. (Reuters)

The Irish government has called on Britain to do more than simply promise a "hard" border will not return between it and Northern Ireland, which until a 1998 peace deal was separated by military checkpoints because of 30 years of sectarian violence in the British province.

Coveney reiterated that if Britain leaves the EU's customs union and does not form some form of new bilateral customs union with the EU, that it is hard to see how London can honour its commitment to avoid any physical border infrastructure.

This point was underlined in a working paper from the European Union's Brexit task force issued this week.

"It ... seems essential for the UK to commit to ensuring that a hard border on the island of Ireland is avoided, including by ensuring no emergence of regulatory divergence from those rules of the internal market and the Customs Union," the paper said, according to a copy seen by Reuters.

Following the latest round of talks on Friday, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, told a news conference that the two sides needed to identify the "regulatory and technical" solutions necessary to prevent a hard border.

Coveney said the paper showed that the other 26 EU countries remained "absolutely in sync" with Ireland on the issue.

"I think it is important that signal is very clear at this stage rather than at the very end of this round of negotiations in the build-up to December."

Source: Reuters