Development & Alumni Relations Office 


(By David Phinnemore, Professor of European Politics at Queen's, originally published in The Conversation on 16.06.16)

22 June 2016

Whatever the outcome of the EU referendum, there will be voters who, after the event, will have second thoughts on the wisdom of their choice. They will have cast their vote, however. And that cannot be undone. The result will stand.

Assuming the vote is to leave, withdrawal negotiations would ensue and the UK would probably leave the EU two years later.

But what if after leaving, the UK had a change of heart? What if the economic doom predicted by some in the Remain campaign were to be realised? Could the UK simply re-join the EU?

This would be uncharted territory – because the UK would have been the first member state to leave the EU. Nevertheless, Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union is clear on the matter:

If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to re-join, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49.

In other words, if the UK wanted to re-join, it would be treated no differently to any other state seeking membership. There is no special procedure for readmission. There is no special route back into the EU for past members.

No picking and choosing

So if the UK wanted to re-join the EU it would have to submit an application for membership as if it were applying for the first time.

The EU would review whether the UK meets the membership criteria. Given its previous membership of the EU, it is extremely unlikely that the UK’s eligibility would be questioned.

But the UK would also need to show that it is ready to assume the obligations of membership. And that is a different matter.

A key factor here is the nature of the membership that would be on offer. Importantly, precedent from other states joining suggests that the UK would have to accept full membership. It would not be able to insist on the same opt-outs and the budget rebate it currently enjoys.

That probably means signing up to the Schengen area on passport-free movement and, importantly, committing to joining the euro. It would also mean recommitting to the goal of “ever closer union”.

Importantly, current opt-outs were not secured through accession to the EU. The UK opt-out from the euro dates back to the 1991 Maastricht Treaty and the opt-out from Schengen came later that decade. In both cases, the UK held a veto over treaty reforms under discussion at the time. Threatening to use that veto, it extracted these concessions.

Beware the veto

If the UK, having left, were to seek to re-join the EU, it would not be in a position to wield a veto. The power of veto would lie very much with the EU and its member states.

In fact, the unanimous agreement of the member states is needed to admit a new member. Each has a veto, as the UK first found to its cost in 1963 when French president Charles de Gaulle issued an emphatic “non” to the UK joining the European Communities.

Professor David Phinnemore is Dean of Education in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy (PISP).



Back to Main News










Top of Page