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What is Article 50 and how can it be extended?


Policy adviser Marianne O'Sullivan looks at what Article 50 is, how it can be extended and some of the possible issues and solutions to moving the date the UK leaves the EU.

After Theresa May’s deal has been emphatically voted down in Parliament the clock is now ticking down to the 29th March 2019 when the UK is due to leave the EU. With Parliament gridlocked, the Chamber has called for an extension to Article 50 to allow for further negotiations, and avoid a No Deal scenario. This blog looks to set out what Article 50 is, how it can be extended and some of the possible issues and solutions to moving the date.

Article 50 refers to the legal process of leaving the EU. The UK triggered Article 50 on the 29th March 2017, triggering the process of leaving the EU. Within this timeframe, the UK has been able to be treated as a normal EU member, however, unless otherwise agreed, the Article only provides for two years of negotiation, meaning on the 29th March 2019 the UK will legally leave the European Union.

The Chamber is now arguing that Article 50 should be extended, effectively pushing back the date so that the UK will not leave the EU on the 29th March. This will give Government more time to engage with the practical concerns of the business community, and negotiators more time to find a stronger agreement. If Article 50 is not extended and the UK reaches the 29th March without agreeing a deal in Parliament, the UK will leave without a deal, which members have told us cannot be a credible option for the North East economy .

In order to extend Article 50 there would need to be agreement by the Government to ask for an extension and unanimous agreement in the European Council, the heads of EU member states (such as Angela Merkel). Both the UK and the EU would need to agree both to agree to extend Article 50 and how long it should be extended for. The Government would then need to change the EU Withdrawal Act (passed in June) which sets the date of the UK’s exit as 29 March 2019.

There are different issues to overcome in the process of extending the date. Firstly, Theresa May herself needs to agree to extend Article 50. Theresa May has been opposed to the idea of extension, instead trying to force her deal through Parliament. However, due to the time constrains we currently face this, and the need to find a new Agreement, time will become a key issue for the government seeking to renegotiate.

After the defeat of the Withdrawal Agreement it is within the Government’s power to listen to the concerns expressed by our members and businesses around the country and act to extend Article 50 and prevent the UK leaving without a deal which does not have the backing of the majority of MPs and would cause lasting economic damage, especially to the North East.

Members have been clear that leaving the EU without a Deal is unacceptable, and so the Chamber will be pressuring Government to prioritise the extension of Article 50, so to prevent the UK suffering a disorderly exit from the EU.

Secondly, the EU leaders and the UK need to unanimously agree to extend Article 50 and agree how long the extension should last. With many EU leaders saying that the current Withdrawal Agreement is the best they will offer there are doubts over whether they will agree to extend Article 50 if they believe that renegotiations will not result in a solution.

However, as a no deal Brexit would cause disruption to on both sides of the Channel, the Chamber are hopeful that if enough time is given then an agreement amongst EU leaders should be reached. The EU have indicated that they would consider an extension until at least July following the defeat of the Withdrawal Agreement. They said that a ‘technical delay’ could be granted if Theresa May needs more time to gain support and find a way to pass a deal through Parliament. Extending Article 50 will be essential in allowing the Prime Minister more time to build consensus and develop a working solution to that avoids No Deal.

Thirdly, the issue of the elections to the European Parliament may also cause some issues for extending Article 50. Elections are due to take place in May, with MEPs taking their seats in June 2019. The EU have made plans to reallocate the seats the UK would have held for the next election, presuming the UK would have left the EU. However, if Article 50 is extended then the UK would potentially remain part of the European Parliament.

Options if the UK remained part of the European Parliament include appointing national representatives to the European Parliament for the UK, allowing current UK MEPs to have an observer status or postponing the reallocation of seats and have the UK take part in the elections. Ensuring that the extension process is started early will give the opportunity for MEPs, the EU and the UK to find a solution to how the UK would be represented.

The Government must accept it needs to extend Article 50 in order to allow for ongoing negotiations and cross-party talks. Many of the issues around EU agreement to extending Article 50 can be solved if the request is submitted quickly, giving both the UK and the EU time to work out the practicalities and how long the extension should be.

Extending Article 50 means avoiding a disastrous No Deal Brexit which, instead giving Government the time to find a deal which Parliament, the EU and the business community can agree too. The Chamber will therefore be campaigning for an extension of Article 50 through engaging with local and national politicians, as well as key Government departments.