By Kate Murphy
The day has arrived. Britain has officially said “cheerio” to the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May has invoked Article 50, notifying the European Council that Britain has made its exit, or Brexit.
A year ago, this looked like fiction. The best of times to some, the worst of times to many others. But the idea of the United Kingdom going its own way was something that many thought would never actually happen.
Turns out, it did when over 50 percent of the U.K. ultimately voted to leave the EU. The fallout caused then Prime Minister David Cameron to step down and Theresa May to step up.
The referendum vote wasn’t legally binding, and there was a chance for the U.K. to stay in the EU. But May insisted that Brexit means Brexit and said, “That means there’s no second referendum, no attempts to stay in the EU by the back door. We are actually going to deliver on this.”
Now that May has pulled the trigger on Article 50, what does it mean?
Central to Brexit, Article 50 is made up of just 250 words. Introduced in 2009 as part of the Lisbon Treaty, it allows any of the current 28 member states to voluntarily leave the EU. One of the key provisions is that the U.K. will have up to two years to negotiate its exit terms with the EU. Any exit deal must be approved by a “qualified majority” of member states and consent of the European Parliament.
So the U.K. has until the end of March 2019 to come up with an agreement, unless every one of the remaining EU states agrees to extend the negotiations.
If no agreement is reached within that time, the U.K. risks falling out of the EU without any provisions in place for its legal trading relations.
May has warned that she’s prepared to walk away from negotiations if an exit deal can’t be reached. She said in January, “While I am sure a positive agreement can be reached, I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.”
But EU diplomats believe May is backing down from that threat, realizing the economic damage it would cause.
So what needs to happen over the next two years?
The U.K. will have to develop a new strategy for self-governance, pay any outstanding fees to the EU and decide what happens to EU nationals living in the U.K. It will also have to work out new trade deals and develop relationships with the EU member states and the rest of the world.
So, much uncertainty remains for the U.K. once it leaves the EU, especially since it is the first member state to do so. The ball gets rolling when EU member states meet at the end of April, without the U.K., to talk about guidelines for the exit negotiations. Proper negotiations won’t begin until after the second round of the French presidential elections in early May.
But now that the countdown clock has started, could the U.K. go back on its decision if it wanted to? Yes, according to Britain’s former ambassador to the EU, Lord Kerr, who drafted Article 50. Kerr told the BBC, “It is not irrevocable. You can change your mind while the process is going on.”
So as Brexit begins to undo more than four decades of EU membership, when it comes to Article 50 and what happens next, at least you can say, “Now I get it.”