Introduction to European Union law
Introduction to European Union law

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Introduction to European Union law

6.3 Leaving the EU

Only one member state, Greenland, has left the EU. However, as the result of a referendum in the UK was that a narrow majority of voters declared they would like to see the UK leave the EU we are likely to see another withdrawal.

Greenland’s departure was in a different context from that of the UK. Unlike the UK, Greenland never really acceded in the first place. It became a member state on the coat-tails of Denmark. At the time of Denmark’s accession, Greenland was a dependency and not a fully independent state. Greenland then achieved partial independence and decided by referendum to leave the EU. The process was before the TEU and based on negotiation.

The procedure for exiting the EU is governed by the TEU, which sets out the procedure in Article 50, which was only established with the Lisbon Treaty:

Article 50 TEU

  1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
  2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.
  3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.


  1. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49.

In summary, the procedure is as follows. A member state would give notice to the European Council. The European Council would then give negotiation guidelines. The Council, voting by qualified majority and with the consent of the European Parliament, would conclude the negotiations on behalf of the EU. It is likely the Council would delegate negotiations to a team (including the Commission). The negotiations are, by virtue of Article 218 TFEU, conducted as if the exiting member state is a third state (i.e. not a member state). By Article 50(2) those negotiations set out the arrangements for withdrawal and the third party state’s future relationship with the EU (this part of the summary is based on the German translation, which is more precise – ‘…wobei der Rahmen für die künftigen Beziehungen dieses Staates zur Union berücksichtigt wird’). There is no provision for change of mind or withdrawal of notice in the provisions.

Withdrawal takes effect either on conclusion of negotiations for withdrawal or, failing that, two years after notification to the European Council. At the cut-off date of two years the Treaty will stop applying to the withdrawing state unless the European Council (unanimously) and exiting state concerned agree to extend the period.


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