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What is Article 50? The key to Brexit

The short section buried in the laws that govern the EU has never been used and was written at a time when the prospect of any member state leaving seemed very unlikely.

The key opening phrase — “Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements” — was indeed the first time EU law laid out an exit plan.

But now it is at the centre of an acrimonious row between London and its soon-to-be former partners about how and when Britain will leave after Thursday’s vote to quit.

“It provides few concrete details about how the withdrawal must be organised,” Robert Chaouad, a research Fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), told AFP.

– Pulling the trigger –

Article 50 says this: “A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council (the 28 leaders of the EU member states, led by EU President Donald Tusk) of its intention.”

But it does not say when this must happen, and that has become the first crucial stumbling block.

Prime Minister David Cameron said on Friday he would resign by October, leaving his successor to begin the talks.

But his EU peers believe notification should be “as soon as possible” to minimise the chaos of a “Brexit”, and preferably by Cameron himself at an EU summit on Tuesday.

What is clear from Article 50 is, however, that it is only the member state concerned which can make the notification. It cannot be forced on Britain by Brussels.

“The notification (“triggering”) of Article 50 is a formal act and has to be done by the British government to the European Council,” an EU Council spokesman told AFP.

“It has to be done in an unequivocal manner with the explicit intent to trigger Article 50. It could either be a letter to the President of the European Council or an official statement at a meeting of the European Council duly noted in the official records of the meeting.”

Jean-Claude Piris of the Delors Institute in Brussels said it was “normal and understandable” Cameron wanted to wait until a successor was in place, and that the rest of the EU “will not put a knife to Britain’s throat”.

“However if it drags on another six months or a year then it will become objectionable and I would understand if the EU became impatient,” he told AFP.

– Two-year timeframe –

Under Article 50, Britain’s notification will set the clock ticking on a two-year period of negotiations within which a basic withdrawal agreement should be made.

After that “the treaties shall cease to apply to the state in question” — or in layman’s terms, Brexit is a reality.

The talks can in theory be extended if need be — but only by the unanimous consent of Britain and the other 27 member states.

The alternative is a chaotic British exit on the stroke of two years, with lots of loose ends.

– Future relationship –

Britain and the EU will separately need to negotiate what Article 50 calls their “future relationship”.

This is not spelled out but would include issues such as access to the single market, whether Britain will have trade deals with the EU, whether free movement will continue, and so on.

Under Article 50, negotiations on these topics will take place in parallel with the talks on the basic withdrawal agreement.

But again it is vague, mentioning only the talks “taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the union”.

– Second thoughts –

Article 50 does say that a former EU nation can seek to rejoin after leaving — under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty.

This however begins the membership process from zero, in the same way as current candidate states like Turkey, Serbia and Albania.

The remaining 27 EU states must approve Britain’s withdrawal agreement by a “qualified majority”. The European Parliament will also vote by a simple majority.


AFP / Expatica