(There must be) 50 ways to leave the EU

Paul says exit stage left. Yui Mok/PA

In the event that an in-out referendum on UK membership of the EU is held in 2017, and a majority of voters opt to leave, what process would need to be followed to secure the UK’s exit?

The question is more complex than it might seem. To start with, there’s no real precedent. Other than Greenland, no autonomous state has previously left the EU or its forerunners.

There’s also disagreement about whether the UK would need to negotiate its exit formally and about what sort of relationship it should, or could, aim to have with the remaining member states.

So can it be done? As Paul Simon didn’t quite say, there must be 50 ways to leave the EU. Or at least four, anyway.

Just follow the rules, Jules

Formally, for a member state to leave the EU, it needs to follow the process set out in Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. Under the treaty, voluntary secession is initiated by a member state informing the European Council, which then draws up guidelines for a negotiated withdrawal settlement. Once approved by the European Parliament, the Council has the authority to agree a settlement on a qualified majority basis.

Don’t pay the bill, Jill

An alternative approach has been advocated by some proponents of a UK exit who argue the UK could leave the EU overnight, if necessary. Parliament would repeal the European Communities Act 1972, the government would cease to make payments to the EU and the UK would no longer be a member. Could it really be as simple as ripping up the contract and cancelling the direct debit? Well, Douglas Carswell MP proposed pretty much exactly this in a Private Member’s Bill in the House of Commons in October 2012.

The “just walk away” approach would leave Parliament with the task of unpicking a vast number of EU Directives embedded in other legislation, as Carswell recognises. It also makes two big assumptions. The first is that the EU could not prevent a UK exit because the UK Parliament is sovereign and Article 50 is legally meaningless. In practice, this may turn out to be the case, but dismissing the treaty is unlikely to win the UK any friends.

The second assumption is that unilateral exit would not prejudice any subsequent trade and treaty agreements between the UK and the EU. Carswell and others argue the UK’s negotiating position would be strong because the EU would be desperately keen to retain Western Europe’s second largest national economy in its free trade area. Whether our former EU partners would be so easily persuaded that the weight of economic pragmatism should trump significant issues of diplomatic principle is, in reality, far from certain.

Get a trade deal, Neil

However the UK’s exit would be initiated, agreement of favourable trading terms with the EU would be essential. Half of UK trade is with Europe.

Two countries provide a potential model for a UK outside the EU: Switzerland and Norway. Both are part of the European Free Trade Area. However, the respective bases of their relationship with the EU are quite different. Switzerland has the looser arrangement, based on bilateral agreements, but is still subject to many EU regulations.

Norway, as part of the European Economic Area, has a closer relationship with the EU. In return it makes financial contributions to the EU and must conform to the great majority of its regulations while having no say in determining them. British Eurosceptics may want to be careful what they wish for.

Catch lots of fish, Trish

And what of the one country that did leave? After securing home rule from Denmark in 1979, Greenlanders voted narrowly in favour of leaving what was then the EEC in 1982. The Greenland Treaty, which came into force in 1985, agreed the terms of Greenland’s exit. To this day, Greenland retains generous quotas for the export of fish to the EU and receives €25m per annum in EU grants. Greenland’s Prime Minister reports that life is good outside the EU but also admits: “We don’t export anything else but the fish”.

There may well be 50 ways to leave the EU. Whether the UK would ultimately find any of them to its liking is quite another matter.

What are the other options for Cameron? Find out here.