On signs and in speeches, Brexit supporters emphasized one particularly resonant argument: taking their country back from the faceless bureaucrats of the European Union. Now that they’ve won the historic referendum, however, some of the most important details about what comes next will be determined not by British voters, but instead by the very union they want to leave.
The basics of what happens next are outlined in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, a document widely seen as the EU’s de facto constitution, but described by experts as “incredibly vague” when it comes to deciding how states leave. The text of the article also makes clear that Britain will face a long and arduous path if it decides down the road to try to rejoin the union. That request, it notes, “shall be subject to the procedure referred to” in earlier articles detailing what would-be EU members need to do. Put another way, London would be starting at the very beginning — and with many EU powers likely to bear grudges well into the future.
As soon as Britain formally notifies the EU of its intention to leave — a step that might not happen for months — it will enter into a two-year negotiating period in which the remaining EU states dictate the terms of their future relationship with Britain. During this period, Britain will remain part of the EU and is expected to abide by its obligations as such, but it will be excluded from the other member states’ discussions about the exit.
The final say rests with a “qualified majority” of EU member states, meaning at least 20 of the remaining 27 EU members, which must also comprise 65 percent of the EU’s total population. If the EU fails to reach an agreement on Britain’s exit in under two years, member states can extend negotiations by a unanimous vote.
“It’s impossible to separate this negotiation from the question of Britain’s future,” said Jeff Rathke, a former U.S. foreign service officer and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Rathke said issues running the gamut of London’s future interactions with Brussels would be negotiated, including free trade, movement of people, law enforcement, and security cooperation. He doubted the EU could finish these talks in under two years unless it made them a priority to the detriment of other more pressing issues.
“Using Article 50 is unprecedented,” Rathke said. “The complexity of this negotiation will also be unprecedented.”
While Britain can’t participate in talks over its future relationship with Europe, it does maintain significant leverage because of its sheer economic clout. Britain’s gross domestic product represents nearly 5 percent of the world economy, and trails behind Germany and France as the third largest in Europe.
“Key exporters that will remain in the EU depend on Britain as a market for their products, so of course Europe will not want to cut off its nose in spite its face,” he said, adding “Britain, as one-sixth of the European economy, clearly has leverage, but it’s not unlimited.”
Powerful EU states are already beginning to make clear that they’ll go to bat for their own interests. On Friday morning, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that as the Brexit proceeds she would look out for the interests of German citizens and the German economy, but urged her fellow EU leaders to carefully negotiate the terms of its future dealings with London and not to act out of haste or pique.
EU members must “prove to be willing and able to not draw quick and simple conclusions from the referendum in Great Britain, which would only further divide Europe,” she said, adding that her counterparts “should “calmly and prudently analyze and evaluate the situation” before making lasting decisions.
Similarly, Poland said it would aim to secure the rights of its citizens living in the UK. Polish leaders haven’t tried to hide their unease about a Brexit. In the run-up to the vote, European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, said he feared a Brexit “could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also of western political civilization in its entirety.”