CNBC Explains

The Brexit and Article 50: CNBC Explains

People walk over Westminster Bridge wrapped in Union flags, towards the Queen Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) and The Houses of Parliament in central London on June 26, 2016.
Odd Andersen | AFP | Getty Images

Britons cast their votes in favor of leaving the European Union, but they haven't departed from the politico-economic coalition just yet. Before that can happen, the U.K. still needs to invoke something called "Article 50."

The Treaty of Lisbon forms a constitutional basis for EU member states, which signed it in 2007. A small section of the treaty is called Article 50, which details what happens when a member leaves the group. It has never been invoked before, but it's about to be.

These are the initial details:

  • To kick off the exit process, the British government needs to formally declare its intention to withdraw and notify the European Council, the leadership body that makes political moves for the EU. Before that notification, the U.K. can still informally discuss its decision among other members.

The next part of the process can take up to two years:

  • The council, without involving the U.K., will start making concrete guidelines for negotiations to ensure there's an agreement on withdrawal arrangements. It also will decide what the U.K.'s relationship looks like with the rest of the members in the future.
  • The European Parliament has to approve the council's agreement. The council concludes the agreement, acting by a qualified majority — at least 72 percent of Council members.
  • The last part of Article 50 states that any member that leaves and subsequently wishes to rejoin can do so through Article 49.

While the affair is ongoing, the U.K. is still affiliated with the EU. The departing state will also still be able to exercise input power on other EU acts during this limbo period, starting from its formal declaration and on to its actual withdrawal.

Because Article 50 has never been invoked, some details of the process have never been firmly established. For example, details are fuzzy on how much the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, will be involved with negotiations. While European Council members who represent the U.K. can't take part in negotiations, it's not written down that the same restrictions are true for those who represent the U.K. in the European Parliament.

Article 50's language is vague because the EU never envisioned anybody leaving, Chris Bickerton, a lecturer at Cambridge University told the Independent last week. It "was drafted with the idea that (Article 50) would not be used, and to make it pretty hard to exit in a smooth way," he told the London newspaper.

Correction: The European Commission is the executive arm of the EU. An earlier version mischaracterized its role.