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On June 23, the British people voted in a referendum for their country to leave the European Union (EU). There has never been such an exit in the history of the EU, but it is regulated in the treaties. After four decades of British membership, a complicated unbundling process is now ahead.

“We must neither lapse into hysteria nor into shock,” said Foreign Minister Steinmeier in an initial reaction to the British referendum. Because now there is a lot to do on two construction sites. While the remaining 27 Member States are now working to make Europe strong after this crisis, the UK's extremely complicated exit from the Union must be carried out at the same time. Complicated because 40 years of membership naturally leave a lot of ties. European law shapes many areas of life on the island. Brits in other EU countries and EU nationals in the UK benefit from the free movement of people. British importers and exporters comply with European trade agreements. Last but not least, the EU institutions also employ a large number of British staff.

The withdrawal procedure is legally regulated in the Treaty on European Union. Article 50, paragraph 1 reads:

Any Member State can, in accordance with its constitutional requirements, decide to leave the Union.

Specifically, this procedure is initiated when the withdrawing member state communicates its decision to the European Council. British Prime Minister Cameron announced in his first reaction that this step would only take place after his resignation, which he intends to take in October 2016. A two-year period begins from this notification, during which the EU and the United Kingdom can negotiate the details of the exit and future relations. The deadline can only be extended unanimously. If it passes without result, the European Treaties lose their validity for the United Kingdom, without the withdrawal conditions and the framework for further relations being regulated.

During the negotiations, the UK will in principle remain a full EU member. Therefore, the result of the referendum does not directly affect the citizenship, residence or social status of EU citizens in the United Kingdom.

The withdrawal agreement requires a qualified majority in the European Council and the approval of the European Parliament. It is concluded between the EU and the UK and does not have to be ratified by the member states. At the same time, further agreements on future relations can be negotiated, which sometimes require ratification.

The question of trade relations between the UK and the EU will be particularly important. Other non-members have chosen very different ways to do this:

  • Norway is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). This means that the rights and obligations of the EU internal market also apply to Norway, which, however, only has a small say in the creation of these rules.
  • Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and regulates its access to the internal market through bilateral agreements.
  • Turkey is in a customs union with the EU, so it takes over the European customs tariffs towards third countries without having a direct say.
  • The regulations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) apply to all countries that have not concluded any individual trade agreements with the EU.

There are still many questions to be clarified before leaving. Nevertheless, it is also worth taking a look beyond that: Article 50, paragraph 5 explicitly provides for the possibility that a member state that has resigned can apply for membership in the European Union again.

For further reading

Holding Europe together: Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the EU Foreign Ministers' Meeting

Travel and safety advice United Kingdom