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Brexit: Why it will take at least two years for UK to exit EU

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LONDON — The results are in — the British public has voted to leave the EU.

But breaking up is hard to do. It will take at least two years — if not more — to sort out the historic exit from the 28-country bloc.

The UK has been a member of the European Union (and its precursors) since 1973, and the British government now faces the gargantuan task of unraveling decades of legislation, treaties and deals between the UK and the EU, the single biggest market in the world.

The legal fine print

The EU referendum vote itself has no legal ramification. The formal announcement to the EU is expected to happen at a meeting of the European Council (the EU’s heads of government).

Once that happens, it will trigger Article 50 of the 1973 Treaty of Lisbon, which gives both sides two years to negotiate an exit.

However, because the UK is so intricately entwined with the EU, it could take many years longer than that. During that time, EU laws will still apply to the UK and it will be, for the most part, business as usual.

The European Council is meeting next Tuesday and Wednesday.

What will happen to the EU?

The UK is the first bona fide country to leave. The closest thing prior to this is when Greenland, which is part of Denmark, left in 1985. (The rest of Denmark stayed.)

Greece has thought seriously about it though. That would be Grexit (another story altogether). But think about the precedent it sets. With the UK’s decision to leave, other EU countries might start eyeing the door too and that’ll have huge consequences for the economy and stability.

People react to a regional EU referendum result at the Leave.EU campaign's referendum party at Millbank Tower on June 23, 2016 in London, England. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to decide whether or not the country wishes to remain within the European Union. After a hard fought campaign from both REMAIN and LEAVE the vote is too close to call. A result on the referendum is expected on Friday morning.(Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

People react to a regional EU referendum result at the Leave.EU campaign’s referendum party at Millbank Tower on June 23, 2016 in London, England. The United Kingdom has gone to the polls to decide whether or not the country wishes to remain within the European Union. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Jan Techau, director of foreign policy think tank Carnegie Europe, said the EU is sure to play hardball when it comes to negotiating the UK’s exit.

“First off, they will try to play it hard vis-a-vis the UK. It’s quite clear they will have to unify around a position that will make it quite painful for the UK to negotiate this exit so that everybody sees what happens to you if you try to do the same thing,” Techau said.

While that’s a short-term tactic, the EU will also need to find a deeper solution to the problems plaguing them — the most pressing of which is the refugee crisis.

What about the UK?

Friday’s vote could also see a break up of the United Kingdom — which is composed of four countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Scots, a majority of whom want to stay, have said they will call for a referendum for their own independence (remember the 2014 Scottish referendum? That vote to stay prevailed by 55% to 45%) — so it can join the EU.

Northern Ireland leaders called for a referendum too after the vote results.

“The British government can no longer claim to represent the political or economic interests of the North in Europe,” Declan Kearney, Sinn Fein National Chairperson told CNN.

“There is clearly a democratic imperative for a border poll in the North.”

Heads have rolled

Prime Minister David Cameron, who led the “Bremain” campaign, announced his resignation following the vote.

A committee of Tory MPs, known as the “1922 Committee,” will put forward candidates for leadership of the party, who will be voted on by party members. Cameron said in his resignation speech that he hopes a new leader will be in place by the time the party meets for their conference in October.

Doug Criss and Carol Jordan contributed to this report.