71

Let's assume that

  • Article 50 is invoked and UK officially leaves EU

  • For some reason, both UK populace (a large share) and enough powers that be or popular will in EU, decide that UK ought to re-join EU, 1,2 or 5 years down the road.

So far I heard tons of people asserting that this cannot happen, that you can't re-enter EU. But none of them backed it up with any facts.

So... are there actual rules/laws in place that would prevent UK from re-joining EU, if both sides are willing/interested?

If the assertion is incorrect, what are the minimal requirements for that to happen?

(I can split #2 into a separate question if it makes this question too broad)

  • No laws to prevent it. But it will have to go back from the beginning, which will never be accepted by the UK ^^. – Gautier C Jun 24 '16 at 18:09
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    The question title should be "Could England and Wales re-join the EU after leaving?" The UK probably won't exist by that point. – billpg Jun 27 '16 at 16:56
89

Article 50 of the Treaties of the European Union (the article which governs leaving the EU) has a clause which explicitly mentions that rejoining the EU is possible after leaving it:

  1. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49.

Article 49, in case you wonder, is the general admission process which applies to all would-be new EU members. It requires unanimous consent from the EU council members and simple majority from the EU parliament. That means any EU member could veto the UKs re-admission, but currently I wouldn't know of any EU state having a good reason to do so.

So you can dismiss the statement "UK will never be able to rejoin the EU" as FUD.

You can of course consider the political problems of re-joining the EU after a referendum just came to the conclusion that the UK population does not want to be a part of the EU. While referendums in the UK are non-binding due to parliamental sovereignty it would theoretically be possible to act against it. But doing so might be considered political suicide. It will likely take a new referendum to rejoin the EU, and until circumstances have considerably changed there will likely be harsh resistance against another one.

On the other hand, there are also all the special privileges the UK used to have in the EU, like opting out of the Schengen agreement, opting out of the Euro zone, a rebate on financial contributions to the EU and many more. All of that would need to be renegotiated in case of a readmission.

So while it is wrong to say "The UK can not rejoin the EU", one might say that "The UK can not rejoin the EU and regain all the special privileges it had".

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    As for the opt-outs... It's one thing when a current and long-standing member of a club opts-out of changes to the club... It's something completely different for a "new" member who wants to join - they pretty much must accept everything a membership entails. So if the UK leaves and later wanted to re-join, they'd probably can forget about their old opt-outs, and have to accept everything the EU throws at them. – Baard Kopperud Jun 24 '16 at 20:48
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    This answer seems incomplete to me. (1) While the UK could re-join the EU in theory, in practice this is about as unlikely as Turkey joining. Over recent decades, discontent in the EU with its uncooperative member has been almost as strong as discontent in the UK with the EU. It is extremely likely that someone will veto a new application even without the privileges. – user8613 Jun 25 '16 at 9:12
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    (2) I doubt that joining the EU without any special privileges is consistent with staying a Commonwealth member. The EU would no doubt take this into account to some extent, because contrary to certain irresponsible UK politicians, they don't take peace and political stability completely for granted. But I hope that the UK would be required to join without any economic privileges and would get them granted separately later, to prevent a repetition of the British disinformation campaign. – user8613 Jun 25 '16 at 9:17
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    A reason for a veto could be fear that they'd exit again a few years later, especially if the economic damage caused by this exit turns out to be large. – RemcoGerlich Jun 25 '16 at 20:53
  • That word, "political suicide", is being thrown around quite a lot. I've seen it at least five times in articles talking about the Brexit and what Parliament could do to negate it. – Joe Z. Jun 25 '16 at 22:21
35

The UK can absolutely reapply to the European Union if they so choose. The only impediment to a state applying for EU membership is what's called "the Copenhagen criteria" (and of course, they need to be in Europe). Essentially, the state has to be a democracy with civil liberties and a free market economy; the UK would easily pass.

When politicians say the UK could never rejoin the EU, they're talking about the practical and political impediments, not any legal ones. If the UK rejoined, they'd have to start completely from scratch. All the exceptions and favors they've negotiated from the EU (such as using the pound instead of the Euro) would be gone. The actual process to rejoin is also as long and arduous as the daunting task the UK now faces in leaving the EU.

Even if the UK's political climate did a 180, admission to the EU can be vetoed by any one of its current members. If, say, France decided they didn't want the UK to rejoin, that'd be that. That isn't some absurd hypothetical; the UK originally was blocked by France until 1973. Imagine what would happen the next time around, now that the UK has publicly thumbed its nose at the EU and weakened the entire enterprise.

So yes, if the UK could reapply. But the concessions they'd have to make and the headache of applying makes it very unlikely.

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    As it happens, Britain doesn't currently meet the convergence criteria used for new members to determine when they join the Euro, since our government debt has been greater than 60% of GDP since 2008. Not sure how that would factor into this hypothetical situation though, since the expectation still is that new joiners have to commit in principle to joining the Euro. – Steve Jessop Jun 26 '16 at 15:22
  • Are you sure using the pound is a privilege? As far as I know joining currency union has even more requirements like 2 years of less than 2% currency fluctuation compared to the euro etc. So while they may like it, it's probably more of an option they did not take rather than a special privilege. – Sebb Jun 26 '16 at 21:38
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    @Sebb except Denmark and the UK, all EU-memberstates are required to adopt the Euro at some point (work towards meeting the criteria). Denmark and the UK explicitly opted out. Sweden, the only other older member blocked the currency binding, but that situation will not last indefinitely (it is merely tolerated on account of the crisis and the Swedish population voting against it). Actively saboting these efforts would have consequences. – Chieron Jun 27 '16 at 9:00
11

There is nothing technically stopping the UK down the road re-applying under Article 49. However, just as the leave will not be smooth, a re-entry would also not.

The main problem is that the UK currently has lots of special arrangements, by virtue of its historical status as a member. Specifically, existing members could 'opt out' of introduced treaties, as the UK did with the Schengen zone (passport free travel inside Europe) and the Euro. New members do not have the ability to opt out of treaties already in effect (although in the case of the Euro, they have to wait until they are deemed acceptable to avoid destabilizing it). The UK also had a rebate in place, lowering the amount of EU fees they paid, which again is unlikely to ever get re-agreed to.

As such, although it could happen, it is unlikely that the population will be in favor of joining it again in what would some would argue would be a worse position than at present.

3

Regardless of whether the British people wished to re-join the EU at some hypothetical date in the future, the most important point is that at least one (far more than one in reality) EU country would block our re-entry for many years to come. The EU project is of existential importance to countries like France, Germany, Belgium etc. and they would, I imagine, be extremely bitter about what has come to pass. Who knows how things would lie in 25 years time, but I can't see any likely feasible re-entry before that time.

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    Well, the UK would have a really bad position to start negotiations. From an EU point-of-view an UK begging to rejoin would be pretty awesome (but, of course, still brings some insecurity). – Sebb Jun 26 '16 at 21:41
  • This answer doesn't address the actual question asked: "are there actual rules/laws in place that would prevent UK from re-joining EU" – RedGrittyBrick Jun 27 '16 at 16:50

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