The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU) on 23rd June. This decision has only advisory effect, however, and the formal mechanics of the UK’s departure from the EU have yet to operate.

There is a formal legal process which must be followed in order to give effect to the will of the electorate, which begins with the issuing of notice of the UK’s formal intention to leave the EU. The question, therefore, for the UK Government and for EU leaders is: “When will the UK give formal notice of its intention to leave the EU?”.

What is Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon?

Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon sets out the mechanism by which a member state of the European Union may voluntarily leave the EU. There are five key parts to the Article, which are:-

  • Any member state may decide to withdraw from the EU in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
  • A member state which decides to withdraw notifies the European Council of its intention. The EU negotiates and concludes an agreement with that state, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. The agreement is concluded on behalf of the EU by the European Council, acting by qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.
  • The EU Treaties cease to apply to the member state in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to above, unless the European Council, in agreement with the member state concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
  • For the purposes of the above, the withdrawing member state does not participate in the discussions of the European Council in decisions concerning it.
  • If a state which has withdrawn from the EU asks to re‑join, its request is subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49 of the Treaty.

Leaving the EU

Whilst much of the wording of the Article is not very specific, it is clear that the UK’s negotiators will have two years from the date of the notification to make the necessary arrangements for the UK to leave the EU. If such negotiations are not carried out within that period, the UK will leave the EU without the necessary arrangements in place, unless, by unanimous agreement by the remaining EU member states, the negotiations are extended.

Triggering Article 50

Much has been made in the UK press of the fact that the UK Government has yet to give formal notification to the European Council, under Article 50, of its intention to withdraw from the European Union. Some commentators are of the view that the consent of the UK Parliament is needed to ‘trigger’ Article 50, but the UK Government's view is that such consent falls within the scope of its prerogative powers. Either way, it seems inconceivable that there will not be a full debate on the matter in the UK Parliament. The devolved administrations, too, are likely to contribute to this process.

The Prime Minister is reported to have indicated, in recent talks with European heads of government, that she considers that it may be some months before notification is given of the UK’s intention to leave the EU. In the meantime, the UK continues to take part in EU business, though it will not participate in any internal EU discussions or decisions about the UK’s withdrawal.