Who can veto a Brexit deal?

20 September 2016
What was claimed

Individual EU countries could veto a deal on the UK leaving the EU.

Our verdict

Individual countries can’t veto a treaty governing the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, but could veto a treaty establishing Britain’s new relationship with the EU.

“Central Europe would veto any Brexit deal limiting rights to work in Britain: Slovak PM”

Reuters, 17 September 2016

Reports this week suggest that other EU countries would be prepared to veto a ‘Brexit deal’ they don’t like. But what Brexit deal are we talking about?

Individual countries can’t veto the withdrawal treaty

The legal route for a country to leave the EU is by triggering Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. It calls for the EU to “negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal”.

That agreement can’t be vetoed by a single country, like Slovakia or Poland. It would go ahead if it were approved by 20 of the 27 remaining EU countries, so long as they also represent 65% of the EU population.

But it won’t necessarily be the treaty that most people mean when they talk about a ‘Brexit deal’.

The Article 50 agreement is, according to many experts, about the terms of divorce. It might cover things like the pensions of UK citizens working in the EU; moving EU agencies based in London; and UK payments into the EU budget up to 2020.

These practical matters should be negotiated “taking account of the framework for [the UK’s] future relationship with the Union”. That implies two major agreements: one on the logistics of divorce, and another on trade. (More treaties might be necessary on other issues, like security.)

Individual countries could veto the terms of Britain’s new relationship with the EU

While the terms of divorce can be agreed with a majority vote, the terms of future EU-UK trade relations are very likely to need a unanimous vote.

Most of the EU’s free trade agreements require a unanimous vote of all EU governments and ratification by all member countries. That’s because they tend to be ‘mixed agreements’, meaning that they cover some ground that the EU doesn’t have power over.

That said, it’s possible for the EU to negotiate a trade agreement that can’t be vetoed, depending on what’s in it. The EU court recently heard a case that will clarify how much power individual governments have to veto EU trade agreements. The outcome of that might change our conclusion.

While some experts think that trade talks could, if all countries agreed, be folded into the Article 50 talks, that might mean that the resulting deal would be vulnerable to a veto.

As we’ve seen, there’s plenty of room for interpretation about what EU rules require in this unprecedented situation.

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