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Top EU legal adviser says UK has right to withdraw Brexit notice

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British Union flags seen ahead of a vote on the UK's Brexit resolution in April 2018. More than two years after it voted to leave the EU, the testy debates that shaped the referendum have intensified, dividing Britain and unsettling markets, businesses and foreign residents.

London

THE European Union's top legal adviser said on Tuesday Britain had the right to withdraw its Brexit notice, opening a new front in a battle over Prime Minister Theresa May's plans to leave the EU, which could be rejected in Parliament next week.

The advice from the European Court of Justice's (ECJ) advocate-general emboldened supporters of EU membership in Britain's Parliament on the first of five days of debate on Mrs May's plans to keep close economic ties after leaving the bloc in March.

According to ECJ Advocate-General Manuel Campos Sanchez-Bordona, the UK (and any other member state that might follow in its footsteps) can revoke its Article 50 procedure within two years after it began and before a formal withdrawal treaty is signed.

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He pointed out that under Article 50, a country only declares its "intention," not its decision, to exit. So ending the process would be a manifestation of the withdrawing state's sovereignty - a word especially dear to Brexiters. Consent from other EU members isn't needed.

Mrs May faces a daunting struggle to secure Parliament's approval in the key vote on Dec 11 after her plan was criticised by Brexit supporters and opponents alike.

"The British people want us to get on with a deal that honours the referendum and allows us to come together again as a country, whichever way we voted," she will tell lawmakers on Tuesday, according to excerpts of her speech. "This is the deal that delivers for the British people."

Mrs May has long warned lawmakers that if they do not back her deal, they could open the door to Britain falling out of the EU without any deal to soften the transition, or that Brexit might not happen.

Sterling rose on hopes that the court advice would make a disorderly "no-deal" Brexit next March less likely.

If, against the odds, Mrs May wins the vote, Britain will leave the EU on March 29 on terms negotiated with Brussels - its biggest shift in trade and foreign policy for more than 40 years. If she loses, Mrs May could call for a second vote on the deal. But defeat would increase the chances of a "no-deal" exit, which could mean chaos for Britain's economy and businesses, and put the prime minister under fierce pressure to resign.

Defeat could also make it more likely that Britain will hold a second referendum on exiting the EU - which would almost certainly require it at least to defer its departure - three years after voting narrowly to leave.

Mrs May, 62, has toured Britain, spent hours being grilled in Parliament and invited lawmakers to her Downing Street residence to try to win over her many critics.

But the deal has united critics at both ends of the political spectrum: eurosceptics say it will make Britain a vassal state while EU supporters take a similar line, saying it will have to obey the rules of membership while foregoing the benefits.

Few in the House of Commons seemed to have been won over on Monday. Mrs May's former Brexit minister David Davis said: "This is not Brexit." Opposition parties and her own nominal allies in the Northern Irish DUP were pressing on Tuesday for her government to be found in contempt of Parliament for failing to publish in full the legal advice on Brexit that it commissioned.

More than two years after it voted to leave, the testy debates that shaped the referendum have intensified, dividing Britain and unsettling markets, businesses and foreign residents.

Mrs May hopes that if she forces her deal through Parliament, firms that have put off investments and made contingency plans for fear of trade drying up will be able to move forward again.

She says her deal will maintain close economic ties with the EU while enabling Britain to trade more freely with the rest of the world and meet voters' demands to reduce immigration.

But the deal has done little more than boost opposition at the hardline edges of the debate.

Brexit supporters have vowed to defeat it and threatened to bring Mrs May down. Pro-EU lawmakers and the DUP, which props up her government, say they will vote against, and the main opposition Labour Party says it will try to unseat her. REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

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