What is Article 50?
Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (EU) gives any EU Member State the right to leave the Union. Simply put, triggering Article 50 is the EU’s equivalent of starting divorce proceedings. It’s a little like the leader of a country saying that it no longer sees a future together with the EU and is leaving it. Article 50 has been included in EU law since the Lisbon Treaty was agreed in 2009.
So what are the sticking points of the divorce talks?
What will be negotiated will only be determined after the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, triggers Article 50, formally starting divorce proceedings. She has to do this by notifying the European Council, the group of leaders of EU countries headed up by President Donald Tusk, that the UK will leave the EU.
The divorce talks are likely to centre on outstanding payments to the EU budget, the rights of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa, and the relocation of EU Agencies currently based in the UK, among countless other issues.
Can we still be friends?
Yes, but according to EU law; the divorce settlement – the Article 50 agreement – will have to be signed first. Only after this has been completed and the UK has actually left the EU, can the EU and UK then sign on the dotted line on a deal to decide how much of their lives they’ll still share with each other after the divorce. The procedure of negotiations on this future relationship is actually outlined in another EU Treaty: Article 218 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU.
Examples of arrangements between the EU and non-EU countries, such as the ‘Norway Model’ or the CETA deal with Canada, had been touted as possible illustrations of the UK’s potential future relationship with the EU. But in all likelihood, the new agreement with the UK is likely to be exactly that: a new deal which we haven’t seen before. Trade deals can take a long time – a recent EU free trade agreement with South Korea took 7 years to complete and agree, making it one of the fastest.
Will the divorce papers take into account the future EU-UK relationship?
Yes and Article 50 says that the divorce agreement should take into account what the leaving country’s “framework for its future relationship with the Union” will be. In practice then, there are bound to be discussions on both the divorce terms and the future relationship in the upcoming negotiations.
For example, arrangements in the divorce need to keep in mind whether in the future, the UK would trade with its EU neighbours as much as possible, or sever ties more completely and move out of EU jurisdictions such as the Single Market, Customs Union and the Court of Justice as Prime Minister May has suggested.
How long is this all going to take?
Two years, once Article 50 is triggered, meaning the deadline for a deal will likely be sometime in March 2019. At the end of these two years, the UK’s membership of the EU will end (whether or not a deal on the future relationship has been struck) unless the remaining 27 EU leaders in the European Council all agree to extend the time period for negotiating, along with the UK. This is viewed as unlikely, especially if divorce talks become more tricky.
Who needs to sign off on the divorce?
Any divorce settlement between the EU and UK will have to be negotiated by the European Commission and approved by the European Council through what’s known as a ‘super qualified majority’ vote. This is where it gets complicated…
At least 72% of EU leaders will have to agree to the divorce terms, which would amount to 20 of the 27 EU countries after the UK leaves. These countries will need to make up at least 65% of the population of the EU, or account for around 290 million people of the EU’s population without the UK.
The final deal would also have to receive the consent of a majority of the Members of the European Parliament. Under EU law, no national Parliaments will be required to vote on the Article 50 deal. However, the UK government has said that MPs will have a vote.
EU Treaties will need to be amended to remove references to the UK after it leaves. The remaining Member States will need to agree to these changes.
If the deal on the future relationship impacts policy areas that EU Member States are primarily responsible for, that agreement would have to be signed off by all of the national Parliaments of the remaining 27 EU Member States. Given the complexity of the negotiations, this is a likely scenario which could take considerable time. It’s certainly not going to be easy or straightforward.
So can the UK change its mind about divorcing the EU?
The simple answer is no-one knows yet.
Article 50 says that once a country has left the EU it would have to reapply to join in the same way that any other country would. However, it includes no detail about whether a country can change its mind during the two-year negotiation period before it leaves, if it decides it wants to stay with the EU after all. A legal case has been brought to the Irish courts to determine whether the UK can reverse its decision to leave the EU after Article 50 has been triggered.