The UK’s EU departure: What it means and what comes next

British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to invoke Article 50 today, initiating the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.
Mai'a Cross Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science & International Affairs See More
British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday invoked Article 50, launching the formal proceedings for the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. The move comes nine months after the Brexit vote that decided the matter.

The decision will mark the first time a member nation has triggered Article 50, which was created as part of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. It spells out the process by which a country can leave the EU and starts a two-year clock for negotiations between representatives of the EU and, in this case, the U.K.

While the world waits to see what will happen next, we asked Mai’a K. Davis Cross, the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science and associate professor of political science and international affairs at Northeastern, how this process might play out and what might be on the negotiating table.

What happens now that Prime Minister Theresa May has triggered Article 50, and what is the U.K.’s status within the European Union while negotiations are ongoing?

According to the EU’s treaty, there is a two-year time limit on the exit negotiations. The U.K. will still be part of the EU, with all of its rights and obligations, until the withdrawal agreement enters into force. For its part, just as with any major agreement, the EU will follow a democratic procedure to ensure that the citizens and member states of the EU are satisfied with the terms of the withdrawal agreement. This will entail consent from the European Parliament (which represents all EU citizens) and a qualified majority vote in the Council (which represents the member states). The U.K. will follow the procedure it has determined for itself, which places nearly all authority in the prime minister. Indeed, after several legal battles in the U.K., first to prevent Brexit from happening without parliamentary approval, and then to prevent May from pursuing whatever she wants in these negotiations, the British Parliament has been effectively cut out of the entire process. Thus, the procedure decided upon for the U.K. means that Parliament will vote on the final deal, but the prime minister will go forward with Brexit even if the British Parliament rejects the terms.

What issues might be on the negotiating table between the European Council and the U.K.?

While May has not made explicit the details of what she intends to ask for in the negotiations, most leaders in the U.K. and EU believe that she is pursuing a “hard Brexit.” Indeed, much of her rhetoric post-referendum has taken a hard line, indicating that she wants to withdraw from everything, including the common market.

In October 2016, she declared, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” She has also carved out a way of effectively excluding the British Parliament from the negotiation process. So far, she has not even shown signs of taking into account what the separate nations within the U.K. would like, and among other things, this has alienated the Scottish who may hold another referendum on independence once the terms of the withdrawal are known. Scotland voted strongly to stay in the EU. First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon might have been persuaded to go along with Brexit if May had signaled a willingness to at least stay in the common market, or pursue some kind of “soft Brexit.”

To the contrary, May has approached this as an ultimatum, saying that, “no agreement is better than a bad agreement.” Of course, given that literally thousands of the U.K.’s regulations are tied into EU law—the country has been a member of the EU since 1973—leaving the EU without an agreement would likely throw the U.K. into deep uncertainty, if not chaos.

How long might this entire process of leaving the European Union last? And do you think European and United Kingdom leaders will be able to accomplish what they need to in that timeframe?

Even though the EU is prepared to outline its terms of negotiation almost immediately after May triggers Article 50, figuring out the specifics of the withdrawal agreement is likely to take longer than two years. Many diplomats and experts think it would actually take closer to five years, and a lot could change in that time. Moreover, since the U.K. waited so long to actually trigger Article 50, there has been no discussion, at least publicly, about what issues will be on the table. Negotiations will not begin immediately, but sometime this summer.

Overall, it’s important to remember that the EU very much has the upper hand here. The U.K. is choosing to leave, and it is the one that stands to lose—everything from higher levels of social protection, to free movement across Europe, to access to education and jobs. This is not a “divorce” involving two equal players, but a departure of one country from a union with 27 other countries. The EU will continue on with business as usual, and its goal is to ensure that the harm to EU citizens from the U.K.’s departure is minimized.

Can Brexit be reversed at some point in the future? In other words, is the enactment of Article 50 a permanent departure from the European Union?

The U.K. can always reapply for membership in the EU in the future, following the standard procedure. There is nothing preventing it from doing so, and the EU’s treaty provides for this possibility. The idea that the U.K. might apply to rejoin the EU some years down the road is not necessarily far-fetched given that younger people in the U.K. overwhelmingly wanted to stay in the EU (81 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted to remain), while a majority of pensioners (usually older than 65) voted to leave. Post-referendum polls show clearly that older British people ended up determining the outcome for younger Britons, enabling the narrow margin of victory. Once those voters are no longer around, those same young people may very well seek what they wanted in the first place—the opportunities that come with EU membership.