It’s actually not as complicated as it seems. Article 50 is one part of the Lisbon Treaty, a constitution written up in 2007 and ratified in 2009 with the intention of reforming an expanding EU.
Article 50 is designed to be a framework for allowing a country to exit from the EU. Once a country invokes Article 50, it has two years to negotiate terms with the EU. If those negotiations aren’t complete, the country leaves with nothing, unless both parties agree to lengthen the negotiation process.
A brief history of Article 50
Before the introduction of the Lisbon Treaty, there was no formal way for a country to exit the EU. After the introduction of ten new member states to the EU in 2004, it was decided that a new treaty needed to be written up in order to solve the issue. The creation of a new treaty, however, wasn’t simple.
A first attempt at this treaty was made during the creation of the European Constitution. However, this was eventually rejected when France and the Netherlands failed to ratify it after national referendums. Rather poetically, the EU then entered into a “period of reflection” until a new constitutional framework could be written and agreed upon.
After adequate “reflection”, the EU decided to introduce a replacement constitution, and that’s how the Lisbon Treaty came about. On the 13th of December 2007, the treaty was signed in Lisbon, and by January 2009, it was ratified.
Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, a diplomat involved in drafting Article 50 has been outspoken about the uncertainties around Brexit. In a lecture at the University of Glasgow, Lord Kerr spoke of the protracted process of leaving the EU, and how there was still one in three chance the UK will reach the end of the two year negotiation period having not reached a deal with the EU member states.
What does Article 50 actually say?
There are five points to Article 50, digested here:
- That “Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”
- That the member state must inform “European Council of its intention” and in response, “the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State”
- That “[t]he Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification…unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
- For these negotiations, “the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it”. Also, what counts as a majority “shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union”.
- “If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49”. This essentially means, if the UK leaves and wishes to return, it must apply in the manner any European country would – there’s no special treatment for once being a member.
Has Article 50 ever been invoked before?
No. The entire treaty is fairly new, and the UK is the first country to have to use that section. This throws into question whether two years – a clause of the article – is long enough to negotiate leaving the EU. We’re in uncharted waters here.