What is Article 50? The only explanation you need to read

James Rothwell

What exactly is Article 50, how does it work and how does the ECJ's ruling affect things?

Read on to find out, as MPs reject Theresa May's Brexit Withdrawal Agreement by a stunning margin of 230 votes, delivering a major blow to the Prime Minister, raising questions about whether Article 50 would have to be extended or rescinded, delaying or even halting Brexit.

What exactly is Article 50?

Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon gives any EU member state the right to quit unilaterally and outlines the procedure for doing so. It gives the leaving country two years to negotiate an exit deal. When the UK triggered Article 50, it was thought that once in motion it couldn't be stopped except by unanimous consent of all member states. The ECJ's ruling changes that completely.

No country has ever left the EU before, and there was no way to legally leave the EU before the Treaty of Lisbon was signed in 2007.

The Lisbon Treaty, which became law in December 2009, is designed to make the EU "more democratic, more transparent and more efficient" and is an agreement signed by the heads of state and governments of countries that are EU members.

Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 shortly before 12:30pm on March 29 2017.  That moment marked the beginning of a two year battle to thrash out a deal for leaving the EU, a process that proved to be lengthy and complicated. The UK and the EU only came to a deal on the Withdrawal Agreement, but not their future relationship, in November.

This is the text of the letter that Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May sent to EU Council President Donald Tusk, triggering Article 50.

Can Article 50 be revoked?

Yes. The ECJ has ruled that it can be done so unilaterally by the member state which triggered it in the first place.

This is a setback for the British government, which argued that the case was purely hypothetical because it had no intention of reversing the Article 50 process, and for the European Commission, which insists that it can only be revoked with the unanimous support of the remaining 27 EU member states.

The EU feared that member states might trigger Article 50 with the intention of securing concessions from Brussels and then revoking it. 

The ruling will embolden Remainers who want to stop Britain leaving the bloc. The ruling kills the argument of Brexiteers that Britain would be forced into making concessions such as joining the Schengen Area or losing its rebate to be able to stay in the EU. It also removes a level of uncertainty around what would happen if the UK voted again to remain in the EU.

What does Article 50 actually say?

There are five elements to Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon:

  1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
  2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.
  3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
  4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it. A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
  5. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49.