Updated March 16, 2017
Just 255 words long, Article 50 is the all-too-brief blueprint which Britain and Brussels must follow to strike a deal. So what does it actually say and how will it define the UK’s future relationship with Europe? Tap/click an annotation to learn more.
1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
At present, 28 European countries make up the international organization known as the European Union. These member states entrust sovereignty to the EU institutions -- EU Parliament, Council of the Union, European Commission, Court of Justice and Court of Auditors -- to represent the interests of the European Union as a whole.
The first constitutional hurdle for Britain was the calling of a referendum for the people of the UK to decide whether or not they wanted to remain part of the EU. On June 23, 2016, 51.9% said Britain should leave, 48.1% chose remain. Turnout was 71.8% -- well above the threshold required.
Since then, the discussion over how the UK could Brexit reached Britain’s Supreme Court where the 11 judges decided 8 to 3 that Parliament rather than the Prime Minister must be the trigger to initiate Article 50.
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.
While it was never thought a member state would want to leave the bloc voluntarily, Europe prepared for all eventualities. This section of the Lisbon Treaty explicitly stipulates that a letter to Brussels is required to trigger the start of divorce proceedings between the exiting member state and Union.
“Article 50 is not about trade at all. It’s purely about divorce,” Article 50 author John Kerr told CNN’s Nina Dos Santos. “It’s the division of the assets, dividing the property, it’s talking about paying the bills, debts, pension liabilities.”
The EU-27 Council has appointed career diplomat Didier Seeuws to lead a task force to establish EU objectives for the Brexit negotiations. Once these have been determined, they will be sent to the European Commission and its “Brexit task force” -- headed up by Michel Barnier -- where the technical and legal issues, along with the terms and conditions of the exit will be formalized and a mandate for negotiations created.
The EU can then begin exit discussions with the UK. Both parties are hoping for a quick and harmonious conclusion -- though that seems unlikely, given the number of players involved.
Michel Barnier’s team will lead the negotiations but a myriad EU stakeholders -- including the EU-27 Council and Seeuws’ task force, various EU-27 governments, ambassadors and the EU Parliament to name a few -- will want to weigh in on the debates.
“The Article 50 negotiation is going to be very difficult because it’s a zero sum negotiation about money,” says Article 50 author John Kerr. “It’s purely about divorce. It’s what we have promised to pay, commitments in the past that haven’t yet been called, commitments in the present … and pension rights. Things like that. It’ll be very nasty.”
The phrase “framework for its future relationship” is a vague term that means negotiators will need to take into consideration how the UK and the EU will work together once Brexit is complete.
The framework discussions will happen in parallel to the main exit negotiations and are expected to cover a range of matters from foreign affairs, intelligence sharing and, crucially, trade.
At this stage, we don’t know what will be included in the framework discussions, but Theresa May’s 12-point plan presented at Lancaster House is expected to form the basic structure of the UK requirements.
Britain’s Brexit Minister David Davis would like the EU to agree what ever financial arrangements are required for Brexit while at the same time re-negotiating the terms of Britain’s future interaction with the other 27 EU Nations.
So far indications from the EU show they want to proceed sequentially with financial terms of the divorce first then talk about the new relationship. British PM Theresa May has set a priority control over immigration.
The EU stands by its core principle, access to its “Free Market” is solely on the basis of free movement of goods, services, money and people. Meaning Britain will leave the EU’s free market, a so-called “Hard Brexit.” May has also indicated the UK will leave the EU’s “Custom Union” ultimately allowing it to forge new trade deals independent of the EU.
The role of the European Commission is not entirely clear in the Treaties. Article 218, paragraph 3 says the Commission would make recommendations to the Council who would open negotiations. It reads:
The Commission, or the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy where the agreement envisaged relates exclusively or principally to the common foreign and security policy, shall submit recommendations to the Council, which shall adopt a decision authorising the opening of negotiations and, depending on the subject of the agreement envisaged, nominating the Union negotiator or the head of the Union's negotiating team.
Once all parties involved have come to an agreement and a draft has been approved by the EU Council, it will go to the EU Parliament for a sign-off vote. At the same time, the draft will also go before the UK Parliament for ratification in both houses (Commons and Lords).
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.
Once the UK has informed Brussels officially of intent to leave, the clock starts ticking on a two-year deadline, at which time all EU laws and treaties will be terminated if a deal is not struck. There is a clause which stipulates that negotiations could be extended beyond the two-year deadline, but that would require all member states to agree.
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.
Once article 50 is triggered, Britain’s Theresa May and her ministers will no longer be party to the remaining 27 EU member nations discussions. However, Britain is not officially out of the EU until the terms of Brexit are negotiated and agreed. In the European Parliament Britain’s voice will continue to be heard, however its relevance and impact will be on a decline.
Article 50 says there can be no involvement of the withdrawing member state at Commission or Council level during the negotiations, but there is no rule for the Parliament. So British MEPs will still be able to vote on whether or not they are happy with the deal before it is passed back to the Council for sign-off.
A qualified majority is needed for a deal to be adopted. There are two criteria that define a qualified majority; the first of which means at least 55% or 20 of the remaining 27 member states will have to vote for the deal on offer. The second is that the approved vote needs to represent 65% of the European population. This means a deal can’t be approved without the big countries like Germany, France and Italy. But these three alone aren’t enough to hit the magic 65%, and so smaller countries like Belgium and the Czech Republic will also need to consent.
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.
Like any nation that wants to become a member, Britain will have the right to ask to rejoin. It will however be expected to follow the same lengthy and rigorous procedures that any other applicant would follow.
Some in Europe sincerely hope Britain backs out of Brexit before the two years of negotiations are done. By then, however, negotiations may have become so fraught that desire for Britain to backpedal will be lost. Equally, the EU may find Britain’s Brexit so distasteful that a cooling off period may be needed before they'd countenance the UK’s return.
Article 49 is the framework for applying for membership to the European Union. It reads:
Any European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union. The European Parliament and national Parliaments shall be notified of this application. The applicant State shall address its application to the Council, which shall act unanimously after consulting the Commission and after receiving the assent of the European Parliament, which shall act by an absolute majority of its component members. The conditions of admission and the adjustments to the Treaties on which the Union is founded, which such admission entails, shall be the subject of an agreement between the Member States and the applicant State. This agreement shall be submitted for ratification by all the contracting States in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements. The conditions of eligibility agreed upon by the European Council shall be taken into account.