Blog Post

The UK / EU separation: how fast does it happen?

Up until the British rebuff on 23 June 2016, the European Union had always been in expansion mode, also known in EU parlance as enlargement. The UK vote to leave the EU marks the first-ever case of this process being reversed.

By: Date: June 25, 2016 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

In the past, there have been a number of situations where a country could be outside the union legally, but inside politically. It was common practice in the early 2000s to invite ex-Communist candidate countries to attend votes in the Council of the EU in anticipation of their formal accession in early 2004. Yet in this case, a country, the United Kingdom, is inside the EU legally, but now firmly outside of it politically. From now on, the EU will routinely hold substantial intergovernmental discussions without the UK being represented, even though the formalities of membership will be maintained in parallel.

An additional layer of complexity derives from the fact that two component parts of the UK, Northern Ireland and Scotland, seek to remain politically inside the EU even though, for the moment, they remain legally tied with England and Wales. Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish First Minister, declared immediately after the Brexit vote, that “Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU” and that “Scotland faces the prospect of being taken out of the EU against our will. I regard that as democratically unacceptable. (…) Starting this afternoon, [Scottish] ministers will be engaged in discussions with key stakeholders – particularly in the business community – to emphasise that as of now we are still firmly in the EU. (…) Scotland has voted to stay in the EU – and (…) I intend to discuss all options for doing so.”

In a strictly legal sense the referendum of June 23 is binding neither on the UK nor on the EU. In the UK, Parliament has supreme authority, but it is highly unlikely to reverse the mandate delivered by the voters. In the EU, the procedure for separation is set out in some detail in Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union (TUE), and places the responsibility for initiating the process in the hands of the relevant member state’s government: ”A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention.”

Article 50 TUE further implies that the government’s notification to the EU sets a clock ticking, which incentivizes the parties to find an agreement on the terms of separation within the following two years. If no such agreement is found after those two years, and in the absence of unanimity of all EU member states to extend the negotiation period, the EU membership of the member states is terminated automatically, which would be so disruptive for the country concerned that any sane government is expected to work hard to find mutually acceptable terms.

A key question for the UK, therefore, is this: when does its government notify its decision to withdraw under Article 50 following the vote on June 23? Prime Minister David Cameron explained in February at the House of Commons that “the British people would rightly expect that to start straight away” after a vote to leave. In his resignation speech, however, Mr Cameron made it clear that he would leave that notification on the to-do-list for his successor, probably not before the end of summer. “In my view we should aim to have a new prime minister in place by the start of the Conservative Party conference in October,” he declared. “A negotiation with the European Union will need to begin under a new prime minister and I think it’s right that this new prime minister takes the decision about when to trigger Article 50 and start the formal and legal process of leaving the EU.”

By contrast, a joint statement of the heads of all relevant EU institutions on June 24 asked for the negotiation to start quickly: “We now expect the United Kingdom government to give effect to this decision of the British people as soon as possible, however painful that process may be. Any delay would unnecessarily prolong uncertainty. We have rules to deal with this in an orderly way. Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union sets out the procedure to be followed if a Member State decides to leave the European Union. We stand ready to launch negotiations swiftly with the United Kingdom regarding the terms and conditions of its withdrawal from the European Union.”

Among other concerns, the EU institutions’ leaders want the consequences of leaving to be clear and unambiguous to all. They understandably fear that a membership referendum may be pressed in other member states on the questionable premise that exit can be almost painless, as the UK Leave campaign has argued. They thus desire to establish the actual precedent as quickly as possible. It is too early to prejudge the outcome of such negotiation, of course. One may expect the EU stance to be not punitive, but unforgiving.

In practice, there is little the EU can do now to force an acceleration of the notification process. Article 50, as quoted above, leaves no room for interpretation as to how the process will be triggered. So the EU will have to wait until the domestic political consequences of the vote are sorted out in the UK before the actual business of negotiation can actually start. Just as during the referendum campaign, the EU institutions and all other member states must for the moment remain the spectators of a dramatic development in which they have a huge amount at stake.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

View comments
Read about event More on this topic

Upcoming Event

Mar
3
12:30

The Brussels effect: How the European Union rules the world

This event will challenge the narrative that Europe is in decline, by asking whether Europe does in fact rule the world.

Speakers: Bente Angell-Hansen, Anu Bradford and Giuseppe Porcaro Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read article More on this topic

Opinion

Berlin will make or break the European Green Deal

€1 trillion isn't enough for the European Green Deal and the EU's fiscal framework is constraining public investment. "Mrs Merkel, tear down this rule".

By: Grégory Claeys and Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Energy & Climate Date: February 3, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Realpolitik of the day after Brexit

Compromises hammered out in the next 11 months, by both British and European negotiators, will dictate the UK’s economic landscape for decades to come

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: January 31, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Britain faces a triple contradiction

If Boris Johnson can negotiate agreements that are better than the EU system, it would be a serious challenge for the 27

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: January 30, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

The science of Brexit

On Saturday morning, the United Kingdom will wake up outside the European Union. After 37 years of collaboration, how will Brexit affect research and innovation in Europe and in the UK? What should be the next steps undertaken by both in order to maintain the same level of cooperation? This week, Nicholas Barrett is joined by Maria Demertzis, Guntram Wolff and Michael Leigh, Senior Adjunct Professor of European Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, to discuss a post-Brexit agreement for research and innovation.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: January 29, 2020
Read article Download PDF

Book/Special report

A post-Brexit agreement for research and innovation

This report sets out what the Wellcome Trust and Bruegel have learned from a project to simulate a negotiation process between the UK and EU to create a post-Brexit research and innovation agreement. Our negotiating scenario assumed that the UK had left the EU with a withdrawal agreement, and that the negotiation was taking place during a ‘standstill’ transition period.

By: Michael Leigh, Beth Thompson and Reinhilde Veugelers Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Innovation & Competition Policy Date: January 28, 2020
Read about event

Past Event

Past Event

A post-Brexit agreement for research and innovation

What is the future of EU's and UK's relationship on research and innovation?

Speakers: Gina Dowding, Philippe Lamberts, Michael Leigh, Adrian Hayday, Clare Moody, Martin Muller, Joe Owen, Jaroslaw Pietras, Uta Staiger, André Sapir, Beth Thompson and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Innovation & Competition Policy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: January 28, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

How could net balances change in the next EU budget?

The gap between payments into the EU budget and EU spending in a particular country has importance when EU spending does not constitute European public goods, or there are risks for their improper use. I estimate that the Juncker Commission’s proposal for the next seven-year budget would lead to big reductions (as a share of GNI) in the net payments to most central European countries, while the changes for other countries seem small

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: January 23, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Banking after Brexit

Will Brexit damage Britain's financial services industry? Or is talk of its diminished status just a storm in a teacup? The City of London could move closer to Wall Street or it might become "Singapore-on-Thames". Nicholas Barrett talks to Rebecca Christie about banking after Brexit.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: January 16, 2020
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

Policy Contribution

Market versus policy Europeanisation: has an imbalance grown over time?

This Policy Contribution tests the hypothesis that an imbalance has grown in Europe over the last few decades because markets have integrated to a greater extent than European-level policymaking, potentially creating difficulties for the democratic process in managing the economy. This hypothesis has been put forward by several authors but not so far tested empirically.

By: Leonardo Cadamuro and Francesco Papadia Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: January 9, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

The Green Deal is not just one of many EU projects, it is the new defining mission

The EU has already invested so much of its political capital into the green transition that a failure to deliver would severely damage its legitimacy.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: Energy & Climate Date: January 3, 2020
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Understanding populism

Political identity is a group stereotype. As no camp corresponds exactly to our expectations, we choose the one to which we are closest and which is also the most distant from the ideas we reject

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: January 2, 2020
Load more posts