Article 50 Explained

Much of the Brexit debate has led to the majority of the public being aware of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and its implication. However, Article 50 is more complex than simply meaning a member state would leave the EU, it carefully lays out the procedural framework in which Britain will leave the EU. The latest House of Lords European Union Committee publication entitled ‘The Process of Withdrawing from the European Union’. It stated that the only way of leaving the EU is through triggering Article 50. Many believed an alternative to Article 50 would have been to repeal the European Communities Act of 1972. Professor Derrik Wyatt QC, however stated that Article 50 is the only real option for Britain, as it is consistent with international law.[1] Article 50 – as is known by many – starts a two year process for negotiating a member states withdrawal. This is not only to provide a period of negotiations but also to allow ample time for a member state to overturn a decision to leave if required. From a legal perspective a member state can reverse a decision to withdraw from the EU at any point prior to the date the withdrawal agreement takes effect.[2] Thus even a change of government in theory could overturn a decision to leave. Though this is more difficult in the case of Brexit as the question was put to the public in the form of a referendum. Regarding the actual process in which negotiations will take place there are many stages prior to officially leaving the UK. Firstly upon triggering Article 50 Brexit would be discussed by the European Council, or the Council of Ministers. Britain would not be allowed to partake in any of these discussions and would be treated as a non-member state. After agreeing to guidelines for negotiations it will be up to the European Commission to negotiate a deal on behalf of the EU. The Council has the right to select a head negotiator if it wishes. Furthermore the Council can (and most likely will) create a special committee that will work with the Commission as negotiations happen. After this the Commission will draw up a draft withdrawal agreement that will then have to be approved by the European Parliament, and then finally approved by the Council.

In regards to voting different stages will require different forms of voting, Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) has traditionally allowed the Community to work the quickest, as seen from the period of 1986-92 as the Community quickly developed under Delors II Commission. Thus in the initial stage when the Council will be discussing guidelines for the EC to negotiate the decision will be reached by unanimity voting. After the Commission are finished negotiating the EP will have to give its consent through a majority vote. However, unlike other stages of the process British MEPs will be allowed to vote at this stage. Finally the Council conclude the withdrawing agreement through majority voting.

As is known the two year negotiating period can be extended, if it is agreed by all member states. The likelihood for this to occur is high. This is not only because this is the first time that a member state will withdraw from the Community, but it also has benefits for the Community. Namely a continuation of Britain’s net contribution to the Community which amounts to £8 billion, and access to UK workers, hence the likelihood of an extension is high.

From this is can be seen that Brexit will be an immense and arduous task. Also considering the way in which the stages of negotiations occur, and the way in which the EU have dealt with large negotiations in the past, it is an almost certainty that it will take well beyond the two year period.

[1] House of Lords, European Union Committee, 11th Report of Session 2015-16, The Process of Withdrawing from the European Union, 4th May 2016

[2] Ibid