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After months of electoral campaigning, the UK decided to leave the EU. But this does not mean the Brexit has actually been implemented. At present, EU law still applies in the UK. The legal consequences will now have to be negotiated in a withdrawal agreement between the EU and the UK.

How soon will the UK withdraw?

► Step 1
In the Lisbon Treaty, the EU member states stipulated for the first time the possibility of withdrawal. A member state intending to withdraw must formally notify the European Council of such intention. EU representatives expected the “divorce petition” to arrive in Brussels shortly after the referendum result in the interest of a swift resolution. It is yet unclear, however, when Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, will file such a petition.

► Step 2
As soon as the UK has formally notified the EU of its intention to withdraw, “divorce talks” will start. Experts estimate that such negotiations will not be completed within the two-year period provided for in the Lisbon Treaty. This deadline could be extended by another year on the basis of a unanimous resolution by all 28 EU member states.

► Step 3
The eventual result of the negotiations cannot be foreseen. Several different models are being discussed. The UK might retain access to the European Single Market based on either the Swiss model relying on bilateral agreements or the Norwegian model anchored in the European Economic Area (EEA). Since Switzerland does not participate in the EEA, it has negotiated access to key sectors of the Single Market through multiple agreements with the EU. However, the EU as well as leading EU member states have to date excluded a repeat of the Swiss model. Norway has been a member of the EEA since 1994 and thus enjoys direct access to the Single Market. In return, though, Norway must make payments to the EU, a situation that the UK sought to eliminate by way of the Brexit. Furthermore, either model implies the adoption of a large part of EU legislation without being able to influence the legislative process in the relevant EU bodies. It is therefore conceivable that the future trade relations between the UK and the EU will depend solely on the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Although the WTO model would facilitate trade with the EU, it would not enable the UK to access the European Single Market. The WTO model would merely grant the UK the same status as, for example, that of the USA when it comes to relations with the EU; and just like the USA, the UK could negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU.

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