How Brexit Will Work

Union Jack and EU flags
A Union Jack flag flies next to the flag of the European Union, Westminster, London, June 24. Britain's disentangling process from the bloc will involve a series of complex negotiations. Toby Melville/Reuters

The U.K. has voted to leave the EU after a countrywide referendum, in a historic decision for the union.

With little precedent for the EU losing a leading member and British Prime Minister David Cameron announcing his resignation, speculation about the country and the continent's future is rife. However, there are some questions we can already answer.

What is Article 50?

Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union outlines the process by which an EU member can leave the union. It begins with the member notifying the other states of its intention to leave, which sets in place a two-year deadline. New treaties signed by the EU as a bloc no longer apply to the U.K. once the two-year period has run out. However, as Richard Whitman, British political analyst at Chatham House tells Newsweek , the article only contains a process of how to split from the EU, but not what status it gains once this has happened.

"The complicated thing is, the article was devised just so there is a provision that allows a negotiation, but it really is more of a pen and ink drawing," he says. "It provides an allowance for disentanglement, but it does not answer the question what we are disentangling into."

What happens when Article 50 is triggered?

"The state wishing to withdraw notifies the European Council, which then sets out guidelines for EU institutions on negotiating with the state and negotiations between that state and the other 27 begin," says Professor Damian Chalmers from the London School of Economics.

All members must then agree on what it is they would like to retain in their relationship with the leaving state and the European Commission represents this in discussions with the state that wants to leave.

"If there is no agreement within two years, that period can be extended," Chalmers said, although all members must also agree to extend the period of negotiation.

"If you're a small state like Latvia, for example, you would want to protect Latvians residing in the U.K.—so they might say as part of the mandate, there has to be some protection to retain the status of Latvians in the U.K."

"The mandate can cover anything that the individual states want," Chalmers adds. "There are two things stopping this process from rolling on for too long. Firstly, the Leave side have committed to the U.K. not being a member of the EU by May 2020, which is when the next general election will be held, and the second is the two-year deadline set by Article 50."

What happens now?

There was much speculation as to what Cameron would say Friday morning. He resigned , explaining that he did "not think it would be right for (him) to be the captain" to guide Britain through Brexit. He did not trigger Article 50, meaning the two-year deadline is not yet upon the U.K.

"Cameron's speech this morning indicated that effectively the U.K. won't trigger formal negotiations until October," Chalmers says. "In the meantime, Donald Tusk (European Council President) said the negotiations amongst the other 27, for what they want out of the mandate agreement, must begin."

This process could be very lengthy, especially considering the difficulty EU members have faced in making a joint decision on issues such as sanctions on Russia, the migrant crisis and the Greek bailout. This might be a process starting from scratch.

"I don't think there were negotiations about what members would like from a Brexit agreement up until now, because they were probably worried that the details of talks would be leaked," Chalmers says. "All states will have a long shopping list, with France likely to request its farmers retain access to the U.K. market, Spain demanding its fishers retain access to British waters, [and] Latvian migrants requesting to retain working status.

"There will be huge impatience from Germany if states such as Latvia or Cyprus try to prolong the process for too long, but we have seen alliances arise inside the EU, such as alliances of Baltic states or Central and Eastern European states, because their interest is similar and the nature of their relationship with the U.K. is similar. They will emphasize what they want and allies have already been strengthening for some time."

It may be in the U.K.'s interest to agree to terms quicker, with the two-year deadline not set in stone and liable to being extended, although a unanimous decision from all members is required to do this.

"The U.K. will have a weak position—as the clock rolls on, the clock gets weaker, and a disorderly dissolution will hurt Britain the most," Chalmers says.

Who could leave next?

News of the Brexit result has already been cheered by Euroskeptics in Europe, such as France's National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders' Dutch People's Party. Both political factions have called for a referendum on EU membership in their own countries.

The decision to hold a referendum and the decision to leave are two separate outcomes entirely, however. Chalmers believes it is likely the British experience may disincentivize pro-EU governments from leaving this decision to the electorate.

"Marine Le Pen will make it a big part of her presidential campaign in France next year, but it remains to be seen if she will actually win," Chalmers says. "The Netherlands are probably the most likely country to hold a referendum next because they see themselves as close to the U.K. and Geert Wilders enjoys very high popularity.

"Sweden is also in a similar situation to the UK, in that unlike the Netherlands it is not a member of the eurozone. A 'Swexit' would not be the end of the world for the EU.

"Still, when governments look at the situation Cameron is in domestically now, I think the only way we will see another EU membership referendum is if someone gets elected on the campaign promise of holding such a referendum."

What will happen to EU institutions?

The U.K. shapes some 11 percent of the EU and a large part of existing EU institutions. As Whitman points out, any talks in the U.K.'s future relationship with the EU will require agreement on how, if at all, the country will be involved in EU institutions and initiatives.

"The U.K. will want to agree the structure of its disentanglement and the EU will want to take a decision on what it does in other aspects," he says. "Are they going to keep the EU parliament the same size, when British members are going to leave and simply increase the quota of European parliamentarians? What about funding of European institutions and the existence of the EU development fund? This will be a process of ticking off a checklist, rather than a date."

The EU will likely want to finalize the British exit quicker and Britain's recent decline from prominence from the forefront of the EU's joint diplomatic efforts means Brexit may not be detrimental to them. However, the discussion surrounding what terms EU states would like to arrange with a non-member U.K. may outline political blocs that the union is divided into, Chalmers says.

Central and Eastern European states are likely to find common ground on immigration policy, with Poland and two Baltic states claiming they would push for the rights of emigres in Britain. Germany and Belgium will be among those most keen for a quick transition and Germany and France will likely retain their status as leading members of the union, according to Chalmers.