In a referendum on 23 June, the British people voted in favour of their country leaving the European Union (EU). No country has ever left the EU since it was established, but the procedure for doing so is regulated in the Treaties. After four decades of British membership, a complicated process of disentanglement now has to be embarked on.
In an initial response to the result of the EU referendum in the UK, Foreign Minister Steinmeier said “we must not allow ourselves to become hysterical or paralysed by shock”. For there is now a great deal to do on two fronts. While the remaining 27 Member States have to work on strengthening Europe in the wake of this crisis, the highly complicated withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU also has to be negotiated. The complexity stems from the fact that after 40 years of membership the UK’s ties with the EU are very tightly interwoven. Many areas of life in the British Isles are shaped by European law. Both British people living elsewhere in the EU and EU citizens residing in the United Kingdom benefit from the free movement of persons. British importers and exporters are guided by European trade agreements. And last but not least, the EU institutions employ many British staff.
The withdrawal procedure is legally regulated in the Treaty on European Union. Article 50 (1) of the Treaty states:
Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
This procedure is triggered when the Member State desiring to leave notifies the European Council of its intention. British Prime Minister David Cameron said in his initial statement that this step was to take place after his resignation, which he has planned for October 2016. The notification marks the start of a two‑year period during which the EU and the United Kingdom can negotiate details of the withdrawal and the UK’s future relationship with the Union. This period can be extended only with the unanimous agreement of both parties. If it expires without results, the European Treaties shall cease to apply to the United Kingdom without the withdrawal conditions and the framework for its future relationship with the Union having been regulated.
During the negotiations the United Kingdom remains a full member of the EU in principle. The outcome of the referendum therefore has no immediate effect on the status of EU citizens in the United Kingdom with regard to nationality, residence and social legislation.
The withdrawal agreement requires a qualified majority in the European Council as well as the approval of the European Parliament. It is concluded between the EU and the United Kingdom and does not have to be ratified by the Member States. At the same time additional agreements on future relations may be negotiated, some of which may need to be ratified.
A particularly important issue will be the legal status of trade relations between the United Kingdom and the EU. Other non-EU members have opted for very different solutions in this respect:
- Norway is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). Norway is therefore also bound by the rights and obligations of the European single market, but has little say in shaping these regulations.
- Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and regulates its access to the single market via bilateral agreements.
- Turkey is in a Customs Union with the EU. It therefore adopts European customs duties in its trade with third countries without having a direct say in shaping them.
- For all countries that have not concluded individual trade agreements with the EU, the regulations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) apply.
There are therefore many questions to be resolved before the withdrawal of the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, it makes sense to look further ahead: Article 50 (5) explicitly allows for the possibility of a Member State that has left the EU to submit a new application for membership to the European Union.