UK Politics

Brexit: What is Article 50? A guide to what happens now

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Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will trigger Article 50 on 29 March - beginning formal negotiations on Brexit. Here's a guide.

What is Article 50?

Article 50 is a plan for any country that wishes to exit the EU. It was created as part of the Treaty of Lisbon - an agreement signed up to by all EU states which became law in 2009. Before that treaty, there was no formal mechanism for a country to leave the EU.

What does it say?

It's pretty short - just five paragraphs - which spell out that any EU member state may decide to quit the EU, that it must notify the European Council and negotiate its withdrawal with the EU, that there are two years to reach an agreement - unless everyone agrees to extend it - and that the exiting state cannot take part in EU internal discussions about its departure.

It says any exit deal must be approved by a "qualified majority" (72% of the remaining 27 EU states, representing 65% of the population) but must also get the backing of MEPs. The fifth paragraph raises the possibility of a state wanting to rejoin the EU having left it - that will be considered under Article 49.

It was written by the Scottish cross-bench peer Lord Kerr of Kinlochard. He has said he thought it would be most likely used in the event of a coup in a member state and had never imagined it being used for Brexit. The full text can be found here.

When will it be triggered?

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The UK, having voted to leave the European Union in last year's referendum, can decide at what point it formally notifies the European Council.

Prime Minister Theresa May first announced her plan to do so by the end of March 2017 in October last year, having argued that she did not want to rush into the withdrawal process before UK objectives had been agreed.

The government's plan to do so by acting alone using its "royal prerogative" was thrown out by the Supreme Court following a legal challenge, so it had to introduce a bill for Parliament to vote on. That passed the Commons but was amended by the Lords. That bill has now become law and Downing Street has said Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March.

What happens next?

Here is a potential timeline of events.

  • 29 March, 2017 - UK triggers Article 50
  • 29 April - EU summit of the 27 leaders (without the UK) to agree to give the European Commission a mandate to negotiate with the UK
  • May - European Commission to publish negotiating guidelines based on the mandate the EU leaders give it. The EU might say something about possible parallel negotiation on a future EU-UK trade deal
  • May/June 2017 - Negotiations begin
  • 23 April and 7 May - French presidential elections
  • 24 September - German parliamentary elections
  • Autumn 2017 - The UK government is expected to introduce legislation to leave the EU and put all existing EU laws into British law - the Great Repeal Bill
  • October 2018 - Aim to complete negotiations
  • Between October 2018 and March 2019 - The Houses of Parliament, European Council and European Parliament vote on any deal
  • March 2019 - UK formally withdraws from the European Union (The Article 50 negotiations could be extended, but this is subject to the approval of the other 27 EU member states)

What are your questions about the Brexit process?


What will negotiations cover?

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Image caption EU migrants have protested outside Parliament

This is not entirely clear. The UK says a trade deal should be part of negotiations - EU representatives have suggested the withdrawal agreement and a trade deal should be handled separately.

The UK has said it wants an "early agreement" to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and those of British nationals living abroad.

Other issues which are likely to be discussed are things like cross-border security arrangements, the European Arrest Warrant, moving EU agencies which have their headquarters in the UK and the UK's contribution to pensions of EU civil servants - part of a wider "divorce bill" which some reports have suggested could run to £50bn.

Before the UK's 2016 referendum, the government published a report on the process for withdrawing from the European Union in which it suggested numerous areas that could be covered in talks. These included:

  • Unspent EU funds due to be paid to UK regions and farmers
  • Co-operation on foreign policy, including sanctions
  • Access to EU agencies which play a role in UK domestic law - like the European Medicines Agency
  • Transition arrangements for EU Free Trade Agreements with third countries
  • Access for UK citizens to the European Health Insurance Card
  • The rights of UK fishermen to fish in traditional non-UK waters, including those in the North Sea
  • The UK's environmental commitments made as party to various UN environmental conventions

A European Commission spokesperson has told the BBC that it does not comment or speculate on the specific areas that will be covered in the negotiations, which will only start after Article 50 is triggered.

Who is doing the negotiating?

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Image caption Michel Barnier is the EU's Brexit negotiator

The European Commission - the EU's civil service - has created a task force headed by Michel Barnier, who will be in charge of conducting the negotiations with the UK.

On the UK side, the overall responsibility for Brexit negotiations resides with the prime minister, who is supported by the Department for Exiting the European Union led by David Davis.

How long will it last?

The time-frame allowed in Article 50 is two years - and this can only be extended by unanimous agreement from all EU countries.

If no agreement is reached in two years, and no extension is agreed, the UK automatically leaves the EU and all existing agreements - including access to the single market - would cease to apply to the UK.

In this case, it is assumed UK trade relations with the EU would be governed by World Trade Organisation rules.

But can a new post-Brexit trade deal be done within the same two year time frame? Ministers have publicly insisted it can - but others believe it could take a decade.

Former cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell predicted it would take "at least five years" and Remain-backing former Labour minister and European commissioner Lord Mandelson predicted that "between five and 10 years" was the most likely timescale.

Some ministers have suggested there could be a transitional period once the UK leaves the EU, to avoid a "cliff edge" and phase-in new arrangements.

Will Parliament have a say?

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Image caption Article 50 does not give any details on the role of the withdrawing member state's parliament

While Article 50 states that any deal will need the "consent of the European Parliament" - it doesn't say anything about whether the parliament of the departing state should have a say too. This prompted some criticism from UK MPs that MEPs would be better informed than those in the UK's own Parliament.

After initially appearing to resist calls for Parliament to vote on the final deal, the prime minister said in January that both the Commons and Lords would get one. The UK Parliament will also scrutinise the government's work on Brexit through parliamentary debates, select committee work, and votes on proposed legislation.

In its White Paper on Brexit, the government said that parliament would have "a critical role" and that "ministers will continue to provide regular updates to Parliament and the government will continue to ensure that there is ample opportunity for both Houses to debate the key issues arising from EU exit".

A bid by peers to make Parliament's vote "meaningful" - they had wanted the vote to come early enough in the process for it to make Theresa May go back to the EU negotiating table - was seen off by MPs. So the vote will effectively be a take it or leave it one on the final deal - and if MPs reject it the UK will probably leave the EU with no deal at all.

Could the UK change its mind after Article 50 is triggered?

As Article 50 has never been put to the test before, it is difficult to say as it is not explicitly stated in the article itself. But the man who wrote it, Lord Kerr, thinks it could. He told the BBC in November 2016: "It is not irrevocable. You can change your mind while the process is going on. During that period, if a country were to decide actually we don't want to leave after all, everybody would be very cross about it being a waste of time.

"They might try to extract a political price but legally they couldn't insist that you leave."

And the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, has suggested it could be reversed: "Maybe during the procedure of divorce they will say 'we love you that much that we are not able to conclude that divorce'," he told the Independent.

The government has said that it would not reverse the Article 50 process. In a recent interview, Justice Secretary Liz Truss suggested she thought Article 50 was "irrevocable". Ultimately, the question could come before the European Court of Justice.

Will the UK still play full part in EU during Brexit negotiations?

It will remain a member of the EU, will still be in the single market and subject to all the EU laws and rules, including the freedom of movement. But the UK has given up its rotating presidency of the European Council - which was scheduled for the second half of 2017 - to concentrate on Brexit negotiations.

Legally, there is nothing to prevent the UK from taking part in adopting EU acts that are unrelated to Brexit during the negotiation period. However, the UK cannot participate in the decisions taken by the council concerning Brexit negotiations.

Can the UK negotiate trade deals with other countries now?

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Image caption International Trade Secretary Liam Fox confirmed the UK was not able to negotiate any new trade agreements while it was in the EU

No, while the UK is still part of the European Union, it cannot independently negotiate any international trade agreements with non-EU countries, without violating EU treaties. But there could still be some general discussions about trade.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has said that "while we remain inside the European Union, we are bound by its rules not to negotiate any new trade agreement", but the UK would still be able "to discuss the impediments that we might wish to eliminate ahead of agreements that we might reach with other countries when we leave".

However, potential trading partners will be likely want to know the exact terms of Britain's withdrawal from the EU and the European single market.

As one US trade representative put it: "As a practical matter, it is not possible to meaningfully advance separate trade and investment negotiations with the UK until some of the basic issues around the future EU-UK relationship have been worked out."

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