Skip to content
Society, Politics & Law

Pulling the trigger on Article 50

Updated Monday 20th March 2017

What does triggering Article 50 mean? With it looming on the horizon, Anne Wesemann explains its role in the proceedings.

We have moved a long way since the uncertainty of last summer’s EU membership referendum - at least around the process of leaving the EU.

Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union is the key to this process. The article suggests that the UK 'simply' has to inform the European Union of their intention to leave. But, we have seen long and intense discussions about which institution or representative has the constitutional power to give the Article 50 notice to the EU.

These discussions even led to a case before the Supreme Court. While this case was brought into court in relation to the UK’s withdrawal as a Member State of the EU, the case actually discusses very detailed questions of UK constitutional law: The royal prerogative, devolution and parliamentary sovereignty. As a result of the case, the government was not able to trigger Article 50 and had to consult the UK parliament first. They didn't have an easy time getting the bill passed by parliament either.

The bill itself is very brief, focussing only on the essentials:

Image of Article 50 Bill. Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v3.0.

Not all MP’s campaigned on the same side before the referendum, so there was a rush of amendments proposed. Some were aimed at softening the impact of the UK’s withdrawal for businesses, others wanted to secure the rights of non-UK EU citizens living in the UK . The latter was actually added to the bill during its progress through the House of Lords. Another amendment, that would have given parliament a final vote on the outcome of negotiations between the UK and the EU, was also added. Both of these amendments have not survived the bill’s journey through parliament. The royal assent is therefore given to the bill in its original form.

This bill is now law and the government has the constitutional power to notify the EU of its intention to withdraw the UK as a Member State of the European Union. This does not mean that the UK will have left the EU the moment the notice is given. The EU won’t let any Member States disappear lightly, the impact of a change in structure is too big. Just as candidate countries transition into being Member States over months, if not years, leaving the EU also takes time.

Once Article 50 is triggered, a period of negotiation starts. At the end of this, the UK and the EU should have agreed their future relationship, as well as the date the that UK will officially stop being a Member State. That date will be the day both parties have met in the middle and are signing a withdrawal agreement. On the next day we will wake up to a new European Union order and a UK independent from the European Union.

This agreement can be signed at any time within the next two years. If no agreement is reached in that time scale, the UK would be leaving without any agreed relationship, unless both sides agree an extension. So far, the government has been very clear that they expect to reach an agreement within 18 months. You might want to re-think those plans for a summer holiday in 2019.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author, and do not represent the views of The Open University.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?