Britain terminates failed marriage and heads for messy divorce

David Cameron's successor, whoever they may be, faces the prospect of an complicated breakup. [Euranet]

Between those cheering out of joy and those containing their tears, some are already at work devising the terms of what will come down as the most destructive political divorce in history.

The result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU is final. Now the process of withdrawing from the EU is dictated by Article 50. Prime Minister David Cameron has always been clear about it. “If the British vote to leave, there is only one way to bring that about, namely trigger Article 50 of the Treaties and begin the process of exit,” he said in early 2016.

Testing Lisbon Treaty

Today (24 June), addressing the nation, Cameron said he would not invoke Article 50, leaving that decision to his successor most likely to be former London Mayor Boris Johnson, or Home Secretary Theresa May.

The UK’s withdrawal means unravelling all the rights and obligation, from the Single Market access and structural funds for poorer regions, to joint action on sanctions that the UK has acquired with the so-called acquis communautaire over 40 years of membership.

Experts say that successful negotiations would require the full two-year period allowed by the Treaty.

However, in the wake of the vote, lawmakers in Brussels are pushing to fast-track the deal.

“Respecting the democratic decision of the British voters also means that the exit negotiations should be swiftly concluded, within the two-year deadline, as defined in the Lisbon Treaty,” said EPP Group Chairman, Manfred Weber.

“From our point of view, there cannot be any special treatment for the United Kingdom. The British people have expressed their wish to leave the EU. Leave means leave. The times of cherry-picking are over,” said the EPP leader.

Cameron’s decision to postpone the launch of the process until a new leader is in place is also delaying the process, which is criticised across the political spectrum.

ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt  said the  EU cannot be taken hostage by a Tory leadership wrangle. “We need an Article 50 notification,” he insisted.

The process in itself is unprecedented, and the complexity of the negotiations make the outcome uncertain.

Not only the final agreement needs to be agreed by both parties, with at least 20 out of the 27 member states representing 65% of the population, but it would also need the approval by simple majority of the European Parliament.

However, if the UK was to reach the end of the two year period without an agreement, and if any of the 27 other members states vetoes an extension, the country will be left with no protection under EU law for its rights.

Lost in exit plans

This is why the Leave camp has argued in favour of a different exit plan, used by Greenland when it left what was then the European Community, in 1985. The idea is to invoke not the Lisbon Treaty but the Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties, which codifies rules for international agreements.

Experts at the London School of Economics have already underlined the irrationality of the proposal.

“This idea is legally dubious. Article 50 was not employed for a departure of Greenland as it was not yet in the EU law book. But even if it had existed at that time, it would not be applicable to Greenland anyway, as it was not Denmark leaving the Community, but parts of its territories,” said Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska and Adam Lazowski, two LSE professors, in a recent study.

The experts concur that the two-year deadline to finalise negotiations may prove too short to negotiate the terms of the divorce.

Recent estimates put the number of rules to be deleted or redrawn to about 5,000, without taking into consideration the some 1,000 trade agreements the EU has with other countries.

The odds at the moment are leaning more towards a messy arrangement than a successful one, unless the UK exit agenda is paired with a rethinking of the Union which will allow further integration on one side a loser partnership on the other – the so-called two-speed union.

“Brexit should be a wake-up call for another, reformed European Union,” said Verhofstadt.

Conclave to decide the future of the EU

The leaders of the EU will convene in two formats over the 28-29 June summit, has learned. The first will be with the outgoing UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and a second gathering without him will discuss the way forward without Britain, and decide the holding of a Conclave in July to discuss the future of the EU.


The United Kingdom on Thursday (23 June) has chosen to leave the European Union, in a vote that is likely to rock the 28-country bloc. Follow EURACTIV's live feed for all the latest developments, as they happen.

Archived: Britain votes to leave the European Union

The United Kingdom on Thursday (23 June) voted to leave the European Union, in a result that is likely to rock the 28-country bloc. Follow EURACTIV's live feed for all the latest developments, as they happen.

Subscribe to our newsletters