We must extend Article 50 – not suspend or revoke it

by Luke Lythgoe | 14.01.2019

To avoid crashing out of the EU with no deal and to get a People’s Vote, we’ll need extra time. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this.

The only realistic option is to ask the other countries for an extension of the Article 50 negotiating period and then hold a new referendum. Although they would all need to agree, they would do so if MPs wanted to consult the voters. If the people decided they wanted to stay in the EU, we would then “revoke” Article 50  – as the European Court of Justice (ECJ) made clear was possible last month.

There is, though, some confusion whether there are other options. Some people talk about revoking Article 50 before we’ve had a People’s Vote. Others talk about “suspending” it.

Look first at the idea of revoking Article 50. Hardly anybody thinks that MPs should just scrap Brexit without asking the people first. Doing so would be a democratic outrage, deepening the bitter divides in our national politics.

However, some people think we could exploit the ECJ judgement that allows us to revoke Article 50 unilaterally to gain extra time. The thinking is that we could always invoke the article again if we figured out how we wanted to leave.

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This seems to be what former prime minister John Major had in mind at the weekend when he advocated withdrawing Article 50 to give us a “transitional pause” in which we might have a “consultative process”. It is also the thinking in a scheme being unveiled today by MPs backing a “Norway” style Brexit. If more time is needed and the other countries refuse to give it, legislation would force the prime minister to revoke Article 50 unilaterally.

The problem is that any revocation must be “unequivocal”, according to the ECJ ruling. That would rule out us withdrawing our notification while keeping open the possibility that we would just slap it in again. It’s not as if our politicians could hide their intentions. Other EU countries follow what they say in Parliament and in the media.

Others have floated the idea of “suspending” Article 50. TUC chief Frances O’Grady has said suspension is the “sensible and responsible option”.

Suspension implies that we delay the process for an indefinite period. It is therefore different from extending Article 50, which involves setting a new deadline. The problem is that suspension is simply not an option Article 50 offers: only extension.

MPs must cast aside these unworkable strategies before more time is lost. The important thing to do if and when May’s deal is rejected is to move quickly to a People’s Vote. Parliament and ministers need to get their ducks in a row on a new referendum, and then approach the EU with a clear proposal for an extension. That is now the only way out of this Brexit mess.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

7 Responses to “We must extend Article 50 – not suspend or revoke it”

  • “Look first at the idea of revoking Article 50. Hardly anybody thinks that MPs should just scrap Brexit without asking the people first. Doing so would be a democratic outrage, deepening the bitter divides in our national politics.”

    Well, for once, I completely disagree with InFacts. We should totally just scrap/cancel A50 once and for all and end this nightmare. Why?

    1 We all now know that the referendum was illegitimate, what with all the corruption by the leave side and hence the result should be null and void. It was therefore most certainly *not* the so-called “will of the people” like May loves to repeat ad nauseam. This is obvious by now and the elephant in the room that everyone pretends isn’t there, especially in parliament where they hold the power to stop it. On top of that, it was advisory anyway, further delegitimising it.

    2 There’s nothing more important for this country right now than to stop brexit, since we know the great damage that it will do and is already doing. Preventing great damage to our country, especially under such shady conditions, is therefore in no way a democratic outrage. Holding a People’s Vote could well go against remaining and then what do we do? We will end up leaving, with all these awful consequences and all this brexit resistance will have been for nought. This is why I’m only for a PV if we can’t cancel A50 outright. And it’s very much a distant second, at that.

    So cancelling it might well lead to continuing bitter divides. But guess what: it’s a damned sight better than brexiting, we have those divides right now and we’ll have those divides then anyway, so this argument doesn’t hold water.


  • I agree with you Mike: – that a once and for all revocation would be a responsible action in a representative democracy.

    As I found out earlier, the BBC R4 PM programme revealed tonight that the Prime Minister personally voted against ratifying the 1997 Welsh devolution referendum which voted 50.3% for a Welsh assembly and 49.7% against.

    How can the Prime Minister threaten MPs that not voting for her EU deal would be a “catastrophic and unforgivable breach of trust in our democracy”? What hypocrisy!

    The 2016 EU referendum result was only slightly less marginal at 51.9% leave and 48.1% remain – and it has been shown by the Electoral Commission to be an illegally corrupted and unsafe result that should be annulled.

    I also agree with Hugo Dixon’s article that revoking A50(2) as a temporary expedient is not a genuine revocation and under the ECJ judgement would be open to challenge. I think however that there would be an arguable option to revoke A50(2) and hold a People’s Assembly so long as, again, it was “advisory” and without legal effect. That would then be legally indistinguishable from just changing the collective mind several years down the line and deciding to have another referendum for which there could be no restriction.

    A People’s Assembly, not so unlike the one carried out in Ireland about abortion, would take the heat out of the discussion and force a sensible examination. A discussion taskforce rather than a people’s court.

    Perhaps people would breathe a collective sigh of relief that the Brexit headache would be over. Perhaps a sensible discussion would confirm the reality and cement the future?


  • Not only did May vote against the Welsh Assembly after a wafer thin referendum victory, she also voted against the Scottish Parliament afer a significant referendum victory. She certainly has no history of respecting referendum outcomes.

  • I agree with Mikey and John. The 2016 referendum was a cynical manipulation of democracy. As you say John, referenda are normally called to try and solve a really controversial issue among the population at large. Prior to 2016 the EU was not a controversial issue among the British population at large. When polls were held asking people what they were concerned about, the EU was hardly mentioned. So, in this case, why was a referendum held? The answer, of course, is that it was called to try and settle an argument inside the Tory party. There was no public clamour for one and therefore should not have been called at all. Once it was called, however, it opened a window for Eurosceptics within the. elite to manipulate the process, tell lies and cheat. A relatively small number of people wagging the whole of the UK, egged on by the terribly irresponsible and biased right wing newspapers- the Mail and Express in particular.
    I cannot understand why pro EU politicians voted for it to go ahead, other than they thought the outcome would be to remain was a nailed on certainty. Even they did not foresee the cynical machinations of Farage, Gove, Cummings, Johnson and even Kate Hoey (who thinks that leaving the EU will kill the devil that is capitalism! Dream on, Kate). Worst of all, the referendum allowed racists the opportunity to spout their bile in a way that was legitimised by UKIP and even May herself with her ‘Are you here legally?’ loudspeaker vans when she was Home Sec.Yes, the so called hostile environment that began to ruin this country’s reputation for fair mindedness in welcoming immigrants. and, now, Brexit has well and truly trashed it.
    It seems that those who manipulated and broke the electoral spending rules are not being brought to book. And, furthermore, one of the individuals allegedly at the heart of this cheating put two fingers up to the SC on Brexit and walked out on it. He gathered his phone, pushed back his green chair and laughed in the face of the committee as he slung his jacket over his shoulder and just simply walked out. Not at all chastened he even tried to adopt the moral high ground and they let him get away with it. If that had been a court of law he would have been up for contempt, so why was this not contempt of democracy and parliament?
    The whole affair leaves a very nasty taste; so much kant and hypocrisy. The definition of ‘Machiavellian’ needs to be rewritten. Don’t tell me it was a free and fair referendum. Anything but.
    I. too, am uncertain that remain would win a second vote. The prejudice and lies are easy to repeat and reinforce and this is what would happen. It would be very hard to convince prejudiced people of the truth even with evidence and well thought out arguments. Prejudiced people don’t do reasoning; it’s why they are prejudiced (by definition).
    Never, ever have I felt so worried for the future of this country. Politicians, such as May, have no idea how all of this is wrecking the lives of people who have made life decisions based on the fact they were citizens of the EU. She just reads the words written by her advisers; no empathy at all with ordinary people. Someone who wears trousers worth £1000 cannot have any sort of feeling for those without food and shelter.
    Please, just cancel Brexit and let us get on with our lives. The politicians can then apply their limited intellect to sorting out the problems brought about by Osborne’s austerity.

  • We are in dangerous territory. Politicians who repeatedly state that failing to ‘respect the Referendum’ will result in social disorder are either irresponsible idiots or are deliberately trying to stir up the populace – or both.

  • Good points above. If it is ruled in the forthcoming judgement that illegal spending decisively determined the 2016 vote, then Leavers will have to accept that they lost the referendum. They will have to get over it and move on.

  • Some excellent comments – almost all of which I agree with but I think the in-facts article is spot-on. Various things need to happen to get the country and indeed parliament out of this mess. It needs political consensus grounded in reality and a legitimate procedure. Extending the Article 50 withdrawal timetable to allow for a ‘significant event’ or change of tack agreed by Parliament is feasible. Revoking or withdrawing it is not, at this stage. That would only follow if there is a referendum with a majority for remain and Parliament then agreed to to cancel Brexit and revoke Article 50. The big question right now is just that – what would the referendum options be? Right now I think it’ll be the May deal versus remain.