Jean-Claude PIRIS (Robert Schuman Foundation)
The possibility that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland withdrew from the EU after more than 40 years of membership seems to be more and more realistic, especially after British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would hold a referendum on the exit from the EU before the end of 2017. Withdrawal from the EU is governed by the Treaty on the European Union, in Article 50, according to which it is a unilateral act of the state concerned. Generally speaking, the country should first announce its intention to the European Council, whereupon negotiations on an agreement governing the legal relationship of the given state and the EU can begin. In case both sides don’t agree on the terms of the deal, the Member State in question will leave the EU automatically two years after notifying the European Council of its intention to withdraw. The question is whether it would be possible to prevent the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union by granting the UK Britain a special status. This option, however, seems unlikely for several reasons.
First of all, EU treaties would have to be amended, which requires – under Article 48 of the Treaty on the European Union – ratification by all EU Member States. The time required for the implementation of this step would be another problem. Finally, it is also possible that not all EU Member States would agree with the United Kingdom having a special status. If Britain really withdrew from the EU, there are several scenarios that could follow. The relationship between Great Britain and the Union could, for example, be based on conventions. Britain would probably try to continue benefitting from the EU’s internal market, while the EU would focus on its autonomy in decision-making processes. Another possibility is that the UK would become part of the European Economic Area and the European Free Trade Association. It could also be that Britain should follow the example of Switzerland, albeit this seems unlikely, since it would have to accept many bilateral agreements between the EU and the UK.
One also cannot rule out the possibility that Britain and the EU would negotiate a free trade agreement, which the Union has already agreed with, for example, South Korea. Another option would be for both parties to sign an association agreement, whereby the United Kingdom would thus become a member of the customs union, which operates between the EU and Turkey. Last but not the least, it is entirely possible that the United Kingdom would become just a third country and thus would not enter into any pact with the EU. As far as the impact of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is concerned, it would affect, for example, the domestic legal system since new legislation would have to be adopted to replace the EU regulations. The withdrawal would also have an impact on foreign trade and it would also bring concrete changes for British nationals who would lose their EU citizenship. Moreover, EU residents in Great Britain would too lose certain benefits. It could even happen that they would need to have a visa to stay in the UK. While one can conclude that none of these eventualities following the Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is ideal, it is also appropriate to question if the Brexit would actually bring more troubles than benefits.
(The study can be downloaded here: http://www.robert-schuman.eu/en/doc/questions-d-europe/qe-355-bis-en.pdf)