British voters decided to leave the European Union (EU) on June 23, 2016, but the referendum itself did not take Britain out of the bloc. Careless headlines aside, the U.K. is not "post-Brexit": it remains very much a member of the EU, every bit as subject to its trade and immigration rules as it was on June 22, 2016. A lot has changed: the pound fell 16.8% against the dollar from the date of the vote to the end of February 2017, and relationships between London and the EU's 27 other capitals are notably frostier. But actual Brexit comes later, if it comes at all.
The first step toward actual Brexit is to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, an accord that went into force in 2009. The article, which lays out the procedure for exiting the EU, was drafted by a British diplomat who figured it would probably never be used: "If you stopped paying the bills and you stopped turning up at the meetings, in due course your friends would notice that you seemed to have left," Lord Kerr of Kinlochard told the BBC in November.
The provision says that the departing state must notify the European Council, the executive wing of the EU, of its intention to leave the union. This notification is commonly referred to as "triggering" Article 50, and it opens a two-year window in which the state must negotiate a new relationship with the EU. If no agreement is reached in that time, the EU's remaining members must vote unanimously to extend the deadline – or the departing state is on its own.
What exactly a deal (or lack of one) would look like is the subject of heated debate on both sides of the English Channel. Until formal Article 50 notification is delivered to Brussels, however, no debate on the contours of a deal is supposed to take place. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May told the BBC in October she hoped Britain and the bloc could do some "preparatory work" in the interim, but a spokesman for the European Commission's president quickly rebuked her: "no negotiations without notification." The following month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "first Article 50, then common guidelines from the European Council, and then negotiations." In any case, Perfidious Albion may be too distracted with domestic squabbles to haggle with Brussels. Britain's unwritten constitution provides little guidance for unprecedented undertakings like leaving the EU. The referendum doesn't exactly elaborate: the option that won 51.9% of the vote read simply, "Leave the European Union."
May's government read that result as authorizing it to invoke Article 50 itself, using a legal route known as the royal prerogative. On November 3, however, the British Supreme Court ruled that Parliament had to approve the trigger; it also ruled that the devolved assemblies of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales did not have a veto over Brexit. The Scottish Nationalist Party has hinted at a second independence referendum for the country if it is "faced with the threat of being dragged out of the EU against its will"; meanwhile the prospect of a hard border between Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland threatens a key provision of the Good Friday peace accords.
The government responded to the court's ruling by rushing a bill through the House of Commons on February 1. Despite a resounding victory in the lower chamber – 498 votes to 114 – the House of Lords voted 358 to 256 on March 1 to add an amendment guaranteeing the rights of Britain's 3.2 million resident EU nationals to stay in the country. The bill will go back to the Commons in mid-March, where the Tory majority could override the amendment; in that case the Lords would reportedly not attempt to re-add it.
Even if the government's ideal scenario comes to pass – Commons strips the bill of the amendment and the Lords throw in the towel – May will already have lost time. She promised in October to trigger negotiations by the end of March, and subsequent reports said she was aiming for a March 9 summit she plans to attend in Brussels. Since the bill will probably not be ready until the 14th, her new March 15 target – which the Sun reported following the Lords' vote – will be tight.
May has pushed for a hard Brexit and ruled out membership in the single market, though she said in January that the government seeks "the greatest possible access to it through a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement." As the deal takes shape, the questions surrounding it will become messier and more specific than "hard or soft?" The final agreement may be too hard to appease Remainers and too soft to please Leavers, leading to a lack of support on all sides. Another possibility is that no deal can be reached, making Brexit a riskier prospect than most Britons are likely willing to accept.
Later that month, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron demanded a second referendum on the deal. The Lib Dems control only nine of 650 seats in the House of Commons, so they posed little threat to the government's bill (particularly since two Lib Dem MPs rebelled and voted for it). The party's representation in the Lords is better, with 102 of 804 seats, but an amendment demanding a second referendum was defeated there on March 7, despite some Labour support. The Lib Dem peers have promised to vote against the Article 50 bill, in what the the Guardian called "quite an extreme move, because peers hardly ever vote against bills at third reading."
On March 7 the Lords approved a second amendment to the Article 50 bill, by 366 votes to 268. It requires both houses to approve any agreement with the EU before it is debated and voted on in the European Parliament, more or less what May has promised. It is likely to meet with stiff Tory resistance in the lower house, however, because a controversial clause requires both houses to approve an exit without a deal. Lord Bridges and others have said this provision weakens the UK's negotiating position by making it difficult to walk away and adds to the EU's incentive to offer a bad deal. Since favorable terms could encourage other countries to leave, that incentive is already sizeable.
The Commons is likely to bat the amendment down next week, as Brexit secretary David Davis promised to do within an hour of the Lords' vote. While that response could lead to "ping pong" between the house, most reports indicate that the Lords will back down.
Lord Kerr, the crossbencher (unaligned peer) who wrote Article 50, said in February, "notification is not irrevocable." He added that Article 50 is not "an expulsion procedure," and said, "if, having looked into the abyss, we were to change our minds about withdrawal, we certainly could and no one in Brussels could stop us."
Not everyone shares that interpretation. Justice Secretary Liz Truss told the BBC in February, "my understanding is it's irrevocable, that when we press the button that will go forward." She stressed, however, that "this is the settled will of the British people," calling Article 50 a political matter, rather than a legal one.
For some Leavers, suggestions that Brexit needs to obtain any further approval boil down to undemocratic attempts to cancel the referendum. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair fed that criticism in February when he urged Britons to "rise up," saying "the people voted without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit. As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind." The unusually active role the unelected House of Lords has taken in the process has also raised eyebrows. On the other hand, the Economist wrote in defense of Blair, "Voters may change their views; it is their right to do so; it is up to politicians, if they think the country is making a terrible mistake, to make that case."
Given how eventful the run-up to Article 50 has been, the next two years should be interesting.