Brexit is the greatest disaster to befall the European Union (EU) in its 60-year history - but the referendum in which British voters opted to leave the bloc does not automatically signal the country's exit. That is the job of Article 50.
What exactly is Article 50?
Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon gives any EU member the right to quit unilaterally, and outlines the procedure for doing so. It gives the leaving country two years to negotiate an exit deal and once it's set in motion it can't be stopped except by unanimous consent of all member states.
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.
When was it triggered?
Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 shortly before 12:30pm on March 29 2017. This means Britain should officially leave the EU no later than April 2019.
For the next two years, Britain will thrash out a deal for leaving the EU, a process that's likely to be lengthy and complicated.
Any deal must be approved by a “qualified majority” of EU member states and can be vetoed by the European Parliament.
How long will Brexit take?
The process is supposed to take two years but many people believe that it could take longer. The timescale can be extended, but only by the unanimous consent of the European Council. So every other member state Government would have to agree.
Triggering Article 50 starts the clock running. After that, the Treaties that govern membership no longer apply to Britain.
The terms of exit will be negotiated between Britain’s 27 counterparts, and each will have a veto over the conditions. It will also be subject to ratification in national parliaments, meaning, for example, that Belgian MPs could stymie the entire process.
Two vast negotiating teams will be created, far larger than those seen in the British renegotiation. The EU side is currently headed by Michel Barnier.
Untying Britain from the old membership is the easy bit. Harder will be agreeing a new trading relationship, establishing what tariffs and other barriers to entry are permitted, and agreeing on obligations such as free movement. Such a process, EU leaders claim, could take another five years.
Business leaders want the easiest terms possible, to prevent economic harm. But political leaders say the conditions will be brutal to discourage other states from following suit.
How could the UK create a new life outside of the EU quickly?
Theresa May plans to transpose EU laws onto the British statute books as part of her "Great Repeal Bill", allowing her Government to later analyse and dump whatever laws it sees are not fit for purpose.
It means that the Government would have to perform three acts simultaneously:
- Negotiate a new deal with Brussels
- Win a series of major bilateral trade deals around the world
- Revise its own governance as EU law recedes
David Davis will be supervising the process as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.
Officials expect the scrapping of EU law could result in an avalanche of new legislation in every corner of Whitehall – perhaps 25 Bills in every Queen’s Speech for a decade.
Hundreds of Treasury lawyers and experts would have to be hired for areas – such as health and safety, financial services and employment – where Britain had lost competence to Brussels. Meanwhile, a Trade Ministry will be required, with hundreds of new negotiators, to establish new deals around the world.
Could the EU come down hard on Britain?
The focus in Brussels now turns to holding the project together, which means they could drive a hard bargain in negotiations with Britain.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, has called for tighter integration and has previously laid out plans for integration of the Eurozone, including a treasury, in order to prevent a recurrence of the Greek crisis. Member states have not been ready for that conversation – but the crisis of Brexit could push it up the agenda.
At the same time, leaders fear that Brexit could trigger a domino effect as the bloc without Britain becomes less attractive to liberal, rich northern states such as Denmark and the Netherlands, where demands are growing for copy-cat plebiscites.
The Dutch elections held in March saw the fiercely Eurosceptic Geert Wilders gain seats, while Marine Le Pen is gaining ground in France as the April and May elections edge ever closer. The German elections will be Angela Merkel's biggest test in the autumn. If an independent Britain proves to be a success, the bloc could quickly unravel.
On March 25, 2017, European leaders marked the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the EU’s founding document, in what was a fraught celebration due to the Brexit elephant in the room.
What does Article 50 actually say?
There are five elements to Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon:
- Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.