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UK withdrawal from the European Union: Legal and procedural issues

Written by Jesús Carmona, Carmen-Cristina Cîrlig and Gianluca Sgueo,

UK withdrawal from the European Union: Legal and procedural issues

© Sashkin / Shutterstock.com

On 29 March 2017, the United Kingdom (UK) is expected to give formal notification of its intention to leave the European Union (EU), following the recent adoption of an Act of Parliament authorising the British government to take this important step. The notification follows nine months after a referendum on continued EU membership, held on 23 June 2016, delivered – by 51.89 % to 48.11 % – a narrow majority in favour of the country leaving the Union.

The Treaty of Lisbon amended the Treaty on European Union (TEU), adding an explicit clause enabling the voluntary withdrawal of a Member State from the EU. Article 50 TEU provides for the conditions and procedure to be followed in the event of a Member State deciding to leave the Union, and it is now considered the only legal path for such a withdrawal. Notwithstanding the formal framework set out in this ‘exit’ provision, many aspects of the UK’s impending withdrawal from the EU remain shrouded in uncertainty.

In the nine months since the referendum, the UK government – headed since last July by Theresa May, following the immediate resignation of her predecessor, David Cameron – has revealed its own intentions relatively slowly. However, with a speech by Mrs May in January and the publication of a 75-page white paper on the withdrawal process and future relations between the UK and EU, it has become clear that the UK government has opted for a more decisive break with the EU than many initially foresaw, with an intense and potentially complicated period of negotiations now about to begin.

Whilst the EU and UK will aim to conclude a formal withdrawal agreement during the two-year negotiating period about to open up, each party will be reflecting upon the parameters of their future relationship, where they have an interest in continued cooperation in several policy areas. For the moment, it appears that the two sides have different views on the sequencing and scope of the negotiations, and notably the cross-over between the withdrawal agreement and the structure of future relations, and this divergence itself may be one of the first major challenges to overcome.

The EU already has agreements in place for economic and political cooperation with neighbouring countries and third states or groups of states further afield, elements of which might serve as models for future EU-UK cooperation, although it seems increasingly likely that the precise arrangements decided upon in the course of the coming negotiations may not fit any existing template.

In informal meetings since the UK referendum, the other 27 EU Heads of State or Government have discussed both the procedure to be followed and the role of the various institutions in the negotiations themselves, and future initiatives for a ‘better Union’ at 27. However, the EU’s clear position has been that the negotiations with the UK can only start once the latter has officially invoked Article 50 TEU, a principle of ‘no negotiation without notification’.

The overall approach of the European Parliament will be shaped by its political group leaders, sitting in the Conference of Presidents, who have already designated Guy Verhofstadt as the Parliament’s coordinator for this purpose. All of the standing committees have been contributing their thinking on the subject, as the Parliament prepares to adopt a plenary resolution seeking to influence the European Council guidelines for the withdrawal negotiation. The Commission’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has acknowledged the need to keep the Parliament informed at every stage of the negotiations, not least because the eventual withdrawal agreement will have to gain its consent to come into force.


Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘UK withdrawal from the European Union: Legal and procedural issues‘.


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The content of all documents (and articles) contained in this blog is the sole responsibility of the author and any opinions expressed therein do not necessarily represent the official position of the European Parliament. It is addressed to the Members and staff of the EP for their parliamentary work. Reproduction and translation for non-commercial purposes are authorised, provided the source is acknowledged and the European Parliament is given prior notice and sent a copy. Copyright © European Union, 2014. All rights reserved

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