Article 50 is a clause in the European Union’s (EU) Lisbon Treaty that outlines the steps to be taken by a country seeking to leave the bloc voluntarily. Invoking Article 50 kick-starts the formal exit process and allows countries to officially declare their intention to leave the EU. The United Kingdom was the first country to invoke Article 50 after a majority of British voters elected to leave the union in 2016.
The article states: “Any member state may decide to withdraw from the union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”
The article became a subject of serious discussion during the European sovereign debt crisis of 2010 to 2014 when Greece’s economy appeared to be in trouble.
The United Kingdom became the first country to invoke Article 50 after a majority of voters elected to leave the bloc.
Article 50 is part of the Lisbon Treaty, which was signed and ratified by all 27 member states of the European Union in 2007 and came into effect in 2009. The article outlines how a member nation may leave the EU voluntarily. As noted above, the article states: “Any member state may decide to withdraw from the union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”
According to the article’s text:
Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
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.
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.
For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.
A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
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.
Algeria left the European Economic Community after gaining independence from France in 1962, while Greenland left through a special treaty in 1985.
Article 50 became a subject of serious discussion during the European sovereign debt crisis of 2010 to 2014 when Greece’s economy appeared to be spiraling out of control. In an attempt to save the euro and perhaps the EU from collapsing, leaders considered expelling Greece from the eurozone.
The problem they encountered with Article 50 was that there was no clear guidance for pushing a member state out against its will. Nor was it necessary to remove Greece from the EU–just from the eurozone. Greece was eventually able to reach agreements with its EU creditors.
The European Union began in 1957 as the European Economic Community, which was created to foster economic interdependence among its members in the aftermath of World War II. The original bloc comprised six European countries: the Netherlands, France, Belgium, West Germany, Luxembourg, and Italy. They were joined by the U.K., Denmark, and Ireland in 1973. The EU was formally created by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, and by 1995 the bloc expanded to 15 members covering the whole of Western Europe. From 2004 to 2007, the EU experienced its largest-ever expansion, taking on 12 new members that included former Communist states.
The Lisbon Treaty was drafted with a view to enhancing the efficiency and democratic legitimacy of the Union and to improving the coherence of its action. The treaty was signed and ratified by all 27 member states in 2007 and came into effect in 2009. The treaty is divided into two parts–the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). It has 358 articles in total including Article 50.
The author of the provision did not originally see it as being necessary. “If you stopped paying the bills and you stopped turning up at the meetings, in due course your friends would notice that you seemed to have left,” the Scottish peer Lord Kerr of Kinlochard told the BBC in November 2016. He saw Article 50 as being potentially useful in the event of a coup, which would lead the EU to suspend the affected country’s membership: “I thought that at that point the dictator in question might be so cross that he’d say ‘right, I’m off’ and it would be good to have a procedure under which he could leave.”
The first country to invoke Article 50 was the United Kingdom, which left the EU on Jan. 31, 2020. It came after a majority of British citizens voted to leave the union and pursue Brexit in a referendum on June 23, 2016, leading British Prime Minister Theresa May to invoke the article on March 29, 2017.
The process was mired by missed deadlines, extensions, negotiations, and stumbling blocks put forth by both British and EU leaders. May’s attempts for an agreement were rejected by parliament. Negotiations were renewed by Boris Johnson, who became prime minister after May resigned.
The country began an 11-month transition period immediately after its departure from the bloc. After leaving the Union, there were no British officials in the European Parliament, and the U.K. lost its veto right within the EU. But the two parties still had to work out a new trade agreement. There were still many issues to resolve during the transition period, including:
Issues related to pensions
How both parties would handle law enforcement and security cooperation
Access to shared fisheries
Customs and border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland
Tariffs and other trade barriers
One big cause for concern was the issue of EU nationals migrating to the U.K. or vice versa. Prior to Brexit, an estimated three million EU nationals lived, worked, or studied in the U.K., while one million U.K. nationals did the same in the rest of the EU. Nationals were allowed to cross borders during the transition period but were afterwards subject to visa requirements.
Negotiations continued during the transition period, despite many halts and roadblocks. On December 24, 2020, the two sides finally announced a trade deal that would replace the EU’s single market and its customs union with respect to the United Kingdom. The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement was signed on December 30 and provisionally entered force on January 1. However, it was not fully ratified until the following April. The new trade agreement fully entered force on May 1, 2021.