On 29th March 2017, nine months after the Brexit vote in June 2016, it finally happened: Theresa May triggered Article 50, and Brexit was set in motion.
But what does this actually mean for Britain?
If you’re feeling confused about the difference between Brexit and Article 50, here it is: the referendum itself did not guarantee that Britain would leave the European Union, but the triggering of Article 50 does. Now May has triggered Article 50, Britain should withdraw from the European Union no later than April 2019.
What is Article 50, and has anyone triggered it before?
Article 50 is taken from the Treaty of Lisbon which was signed in 2007 by all the heads of state and governments of EU member countries. Prior to this, there was no legal way to leave the EU.
Because of Article 50, any EU member has the right to leave, and the leaving country has two years in which to negotiate an exit deal: this is what Britain will be doing before April 2019.
It’s a big deal because, once it has been triggered, it cannot be stopped, unless all of the member states unanimously decide that they want to stop it. Britain is the first country to ever trigger Article 50.
How long will the process of leaving take?
This is unclear, but it may well be more than two years, especially because we are the first country to attempt to leave the EU.
Any deal that Britain’s leaders propose can be vetoed by the European Parliament and ‘a qualified majority’ of EU member states must approve it first.
In addition, extending the timescale for leaving would also need the entire European Council to consent.
However, after these two years are over, Britain should no longer be tied to EU treaties or agreements which we are currently involved in.
As The Telegraph’s Michael Wilkinson explains, ‘Untying Britain from the old membership is the easy bit. Harder will be agreeing a new trading relationship, establishing what tariffs and other barriers to entry are permitted, and agreeing on obligations such as free movement.’
EU leaders warn that sorting out these relationships and obligations could take up to five years. This is especially because each EU country has a veto they can use over the conditions of exit, and national parliaments can also have their say.
In other words, if MPs from another EU state don’t like the terms suggested by Britain, they can stop it in its tracks.
So, what happens next?
It’s unclear what the terms are that Britain will be able to negotiate. From an economic point of view, businesses will obviously want the terms to be as lenient as possible, but the EU may be harsh on Britain to discourage other countries from wanting to follow our example.
Membership of the EU is a contentious issue across Europe, with the Eurosceptic Geert Wilders gaining seats in the Netherlands in March, and Marine Le Pen growing in power in France, European leaders are likely to do their best to prevent the bloc from disintegrating.
What the eventual fallout will be for Britain’s relationship to the EU with regards to travel, trade and tariffs, no one can really say at this stage.
Can we go back into the EU?
There is an Article 49 mentioned in Article 50, which outlines the procedure for joining again, but it seems pretty unlikely that this one will be triggered any time soon.