Nine months after 52% of Britons voted yes in the June 23, 2016 referendum on whether the United Kingdom should exit the European Union (EU), British Prime Minister Theresa May has followed through on her “Brexit means Brexit” promise. On Wednesday, March 29, 2017 the May Government submitted a letter to the EU Council’s President Donald Tusk formally notifying of the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU pursuant to Article 50 (2) of the Treaty on European Union (Lisbon Treaty).
Earlier this month (March 13), the UK Parliament had passed the legislation authorising the Government to make the notification and allowing Mrs. May to meet the end of March deadline she had promised last year.
What happens next?
The UK will be the first EU Member State to withdraw from the EU so the move is not just historic but also brings some uncertainty. However, on several points Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is clear. The Article 50 (2) notification starts the two year clock towards the UK’s formal exit. The Brexit negotiations will concern not only the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the currently 28-member trade and economic bloc but also the framework for the future relationship between the UK and remaining EU-27. Article 50(2) also makes clear that the negotiations are to follow the procedure set out in Article 218 (3) which deals with negotiations of agreements with third States. Regardless of whether or not a deal is reached, the UK automatically ceases to be part of the EU and its treaties once the two year timeframe from the date of the Article 50 (2) notification (March 29 2019) elapses, unless the EU Council (unanimously) and the UK agree to an extension.
The road to Brexit thus far has not been a smooth one, but may be mild compared to what potentially awaits ahead. Mrs May faces likely tough negotiations. Though wishing to preserve as amicable and cooperative a relationship with the UK, the EU Council would not want to make leaving the EU too easy a prospect for those EU member states which might be contemplating their own ‘Brexit’. Moreover, the UK has little experience in trade negotiations because the EU Commission was responsible for negotiations with third States.
For her part, Mrs. May was both firm but cordial in her withdrawal letter, reiterating themes from her major Brexit speech. She noted that while the UK would be leaving the EU, it would not be leaving Europe and she expressed the desire to remain friends and committed allies with the EU-27.
One of the issues to be ironed out would be what level of access will the UK have to the EU for not only its goods and services. Mrs. May has already made clear that the UK will not seek to be a member of the single market or the customs union.
Additionally, another contentious issue is that of residency rights of the 900,000 Britons (according to the Office of National Statistics) living in the EU-27.
The May Government has already stated its willingness to walk away with no deal rather than a bad one.
In addition to possibly tough negotiations with the EU, Mrs. May will also need to manage the home front amidst calls by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for a second independence referendum. Scotland had voted to remain.
The Brexit negotiations may not start until June which cuts into the two year window for negotiation.
The full Article 50 notification letter may be viewed here.
Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B., is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.