Brexit - article 50 triggered

This article was published prior to the publication of the post-Brexit agreement between the UK and EU which covers the relationship between the UK and EU following the end of the implementation period (commonly referred to as the “transition period”) created by the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, and should be read in that context. For up-to-date commentary and information on our services, please see our Beyond Brexit page.

The government has today [Wednesday 29 March 2017] given formal notification of the United Kingdom’s intention to leave the European Union.

The notification was given in the form of a letter from the Prime Minister to the President of the European Commission, Donald Tusk.


Theresa May’s letter follows the passing of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which became an Act of Parliament on being given royal assent on 16 March.

The Act was needed because of the Supreme Court’s judgment on R (on the application of Miller and another) v the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, handed down on 24 January, in which it was held that ministers could not give notice to withdraw from the EU by using prerogative powers without prior authorisation by an Act of Parliament.

Accordingly, the Act, which comprises just two sections, provides that the Prime Minister may notify the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU under article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union.

The Prime Minister’s letter

In her letter to Mr Tusk, Theresa May stresses that the UK’s decision to leave the EU is no rejection of shared European values, but rather a vote to restore national self-determination.

The UK wants to remain a committed partner and ally to its continental friends, and hopes to enjoy ‘a new deep and special partnership’ with the EU, as its closest friend and neighbour, once withdrawal has taken place. It is therefore hoped to agree the terms of the UK’s future partnership with the EU alongside the terms of withdrawal.

The process in the UK

The government is to publish a white paper consulting on the legislation that will repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and convert existing EU law into UK law when withdrawal takes place.

While the government ‘will negotiate as one United Kingdom’, it is expected that repatriation of powers from the EU will result in ‘a significant increase in the decision-making power of each devolved administration’.

Negotiations with the EU

The government hopes to agree ‘a deep and special partnership that takes in both economic and security co-operation’. If the UK leaves without an agreement for future partnership, trade with the EU will default to World Trade Organisation terms, and co-operation against crime and terrorism will be weakened. The government will therefore work hard to avoid that outcome, wanting the UK to ‘play its full part’ in realising the vision of a strong and prosperous Europe.

Principles for the discussions

Mrs May suggests seven principles with the aim of making the process of discussion ‘as smooth and successful as possible’.

(i)  Constructive and respectful engagement – the UK and EU ‘should engage with each other constructively and respectfully, in a spirit of sincere co-operation’. It is acknowledged that the UK will have to leave the single market, since it is unwilling to accept freedom of movement, and follow EU rules in future trade with Europe.

(ii)  Putting citizens first – it is hoped to reach early agreement about the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU.

(iii)  A comprehensive agreement – as already mentioned, the government wants to agree the terms of the UK’s future relationship with the EU alongside the terms of withdrawal. The latter will include ‘a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the UK’s continuing partnership with the EU’.

(iv)  Minimising disruption and maximising certainty – in the hope of avoiding ‘any cliff-edge’ in the move from the current relationship to the future partnership, the UK would like to agree ‘implementation periods to adjust in a smooth and orderly way to new arrangements’.

(v)  Ireland – special attention should be given to maintaining the Common Travel Area between Northern Ireland and the Republic, avoiding the return to a hard border. The Belfast Agreement should be upheld, and nothing should be done to jeopardise the peace process.

(vi)  Prioritising the biggest challenges – the government proposes ‘a bold and ambitious free trade agreement between the UK and the EU’, ‘of greater scope and ambition than any such agreement before it’, including coverage of financial services and network industries. Managing ‘the evolution of regulatory frameworks to maintain a fair and open trading environment should be a priority’, and the government will put forward ‘detailed proposals for deep, broad and dynamic co-operation’ on economic and security matters.

(vii) Continuing to protect shared values – the government wants the UK to play its part in ensuring that Europe ‘remains strong and prosperous’, projecting its ‘liberal, democratic values’ and ‘defending itself from security threats’.

The task ahead

Mrs May concludes by repeating her desire for a partnership between the UK and the EU that deals with both economic and security co-operation, in view of the global importance of security and free trade.

It will be a challenge to reach a comprehensive agreement within the two-year period for withdrawal discussions provided in article 50. But this is believed to be possible, given the current regulatory alignment between the UK and the EU and the importance of future partnership.

The Prime Minister’s hope is for ‘a deep and special partnership that contributes towards the prosperity, security and global power of our continent’.

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