Those that believed the referendum would pave the way for a swift and decisive exit could not possibly have expected so many obstacles to the formal triggering of Article 50. But even following unprecedented peacetime political change, a series of constitutional legal challenges, constant media debate over soft or hard Brexit, a backlash from the so-called “remoaners”, and various amendment requests from the House of Lords, the path is finally clear to trigger the exit process.
Official commentators make the Article 50 process sound simple. They would have you believe that Prime Minister May symbolically delivers a notice to the European Council to kick-start a two-year withdrawal process. So far, so good, but it is that two-year process which will determine what Brexit actually looks like.
If only there was a precedent for the UK, and the EU for that matter, to follow. The simple truth is that the exit process has never previously been triggered and by all accounts, the treaty provision was never intended to be used. Whether another nation will follow the UK’s decision remains to be seen, but for now at least the UK and the EU are both entering unchartered territory.
Financial markets loath uncertainty although current thinking is that reaction to triggering the notice will be muted. As every business that depends on imported products will tell you, the supply chain is already dealing with the Brexit devaluation, so in a certain sense, the process is largely priced in.
Article 50 itself is brief. Once triggered, it obliges the EU and the UK to negotiate and conclude an agreement “setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking into account of the framework for its future relationship”. Just two years are allowed for the process which can only be extended if each EU member agrees. So at this point, if no agreement has been reached, any single EU member could veto and effectively prompt the UK’s exit without a deal.