By Nicole Wilkins, Editor and Associate Publisher of Foresight News
If the UK votes to leave the EU on June 23, the process for actually withdrawing is likely to be long and somewhat complicated.
Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets out the rules for leaving, isn’t particularly detailed and doesn’t give much guidance on how it should be done. It does, however, set a two-year timeframe for negotiations, after which the UK would cease to be a member, either under the terms it has negotiated or under no terms at all.
- Formal notifiction: The referendum result itself doesn’t invoke Article 50; this happens when Prime Minister David Cameron formally informs the European Council of the UK’s intention to withdraw. Leave campaigners have advocated a long period of prelimary negotiations and preparation before official notification, while Cameron has said the British public would expect the process to begin ‘straight away’. The UK remains a member of the EU throughout the negotiation period.
- Withdrawal agreement: Once withdrawal has begun, there are a series of steps and votes that need to happen: the European Council must unanimously approve guidelines for its negotiation team (likely the European Commission), which will then work with the UK to come up with a Withdrawal Agreement. The Withdrawal Agreement covers what happens as and when the UK leaves the EU, including the timeframe for a transition period, cross-border security arrangements, foreign policy co-operation and arrangements for the rights of UK citizens living in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK.
- Majority approval: Once an agreement is in place, it has to be approved by a majority of the 751 MEPs in the European Parliament, and then by an enhanced qualified majority of the European Council (at least 20 out of 27 leaders of the remaining EU member states, representing 65% of the EU population). If no agreement is in place after two years, the European Council can, by unanimous vote, agree to extend the negotiation period.
- Failure of negotiation: If the negotiation period expires without a withdrawal agreement in place, and without an extension being granted, the UK and the EU would revert to World Trade Organisation rules, which include considerably higher tariffs on a number of goods. There would also be an issue for UK citizens and businesses living and operating in the EU, and vice versa, as they would have no such rights once membership has expired. This is a worst-case scenario, and negotiators on both sides are likely to work quite hard to ensure it doesn’t happen.
- New agreements: Alongside this process, the UK and the EU also need to negotiate an agreement for their new relationship, covering things like trade, finance and movement rights once the UK has left. It has to go through a similar process of consultation and voting within the European Parliament and European Council, and may also require ratification by some national parliaments.
Both voting processes could be complicated by the elections taking place throughout the EU during the withdrawal period – 19 elections are scheduled between June 23 and October 2018 – which could see governments change and new demands from countries that have veto power every time a unanimous vote is required.
As a result, no one is sure how long withdrawal could end up taking. EU trade agreements take an average of six years to complete, and the government has said the process could take a decade. Leave campaigners are more optimistic, saying it would take less time because the UK and EU are starting from a point of tariff-free trade and regulatory equivalence.
You can find more information on this process and the timeline of elections and other important dates in our Guide to Leaving the European Union.
Nicole Wilkins is the Editor and Associate Publisher of Foresight News, overseeing content and partnerships, and making sure the team are perfecting their fortune-telling techniques.
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