- Article 50 has set Britain on a course through a bureaucratic and diplomatic minefield.
- Britain has less than 18 months of real time to hammer out a deal.
- Most experts predict a full deal will be impossible in such a short period.
- EU leaders threaten to punish UK during negotiations.
LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May has now triggered Article 50 — the two-year process through which Britain will leave the European Union. As a result most experts now suggest we face some of the most nightmarish international negotiations seen since the Second World War. So what can we expect to happen next? Let’s go through all the key questions.
Everyone’s going on about Article 50. What is it?
Article 50 is the formal trigger for leaving the EU contained within the Lisbon Treaty. Now it has been triggered, Britain will be free to leave the EU from the moment we ratify an exit deal, or failing that, exactly two years after we have triggered — which in our case will be March 29, 2019.
Two years sounds like a long time. It has already been a year since we voted to Leave. What is going on?
Two major hurdles need to be jumped before we can fully leave the EU. The first is securing a agreement over our exit terms. The second is settling our future relationship with the EU. Both will be fiendishly difficult and most experts agree that the latter is likely to take far longer than the two years allotted by Article 50.
So we could still be in the EU after 2019?
It is possible. Article 50 allows for the process to be extended if all members of the European Council agree to it. There is also the possibility that we could revoke Article 50 before the two years runs out in order to give us more time. Even if neither of these happen, it is increasingly likely that there will be a transitional period lasting for years after Brexit in which many of the existing EU structures and rules will still apply to the UK. This could include transitional arrangements which mean that the free movement of migrants from the EU will continue for several years.
But hang on, I thought we had taken back control?
Maybe not. Now we have triggered Article 50 most of the biggest decisions about our future relationship with the world will be hammered out in negotiating rooms in Brussels with our own parliament having little real say over what is agreed. With such little time to play with Theresa May could be forced into making some very big concessions to avoid crashing out of the EU without any deal at all.
Here we go again. This is just Project Fear. The EU needs us more than we need them.
Well, not really. Around 44% of our exports go to the EU whereas only around 16% of their exports go to us. There is also a large political imperative for other 27 EU countries to avoid handing us any deal that would make leaving the EU look attractive to remaining member states. And again, the time pressures are against us.
But two years is ages. Surely we can get a deal in that time?
It is a very short time in terms of international trade negotiations. The recent EU-Canada free trade deal (CETA) took seven years to complete and that did not even include negotiations on services.
In any case we do not even have two full years. First the European Council must up draw up guidelines for the negotiations and they won’t meet until April 29, meaning actual negotiations are not expected to begin until May. There will also have to be a six-month ratification period before the Article 50 clock runs out. So really we could only have around 16 months to sort all this out.
Even that may be overstating it however, as the EU’s negotiating team are determined not to even begin trade talks until we have agreed our exit terms. That alone could take the best part of a year to complete.
What is there to negotiate? We said we are leaving. End of story.
I am afraid it is not that straightforward. The question of what will happen to EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU will need to be settled early on, as will the question of what will happen to the Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland border now that we are leaving the Single Market and Customs Union.
There is also the tricky question of how much we have to pay before we can leave.
We have to pay to leave? Surely they should be paying us?
The UK has signed up to a large number of ongoing EU commitments and projects. These come with prices attached.
Some legal experts believe we could get away without paying for some of these, but EU leaders have also warned that doing so would lead to Britain being taken to the international courts. This may or may not be a fight that we could win but it would hardly be a great act of diplomacy on Britain’s part at the very moment we are angling for a positive trade deal with the EU.
Privately ministers concede that we will have to pay something but that quite how much will depend on negotiation. Senior EU figures have already suggested the figure could be as much as €60 billion. However, anything on that scale would be hugely politically difficult for May’s government to accept.
I am not liking the sound of this. No deal is better than a bad deal.
Most trade, business and economic experts agree that leaving the EU without any deal or interim agreement would be catastrophic. It would mean the UK falling onto World Trade Organisation terms which would mean tariffs being imposed on goods, prices soaring in the shops, huge queues at customs and hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost. It would also leave the UK in a legal and regulatory limbo which could force an exodus of international businesses unsure of where they now stand.
This is just more scaremongering. Lots of countries trade on WTO terms.
Yes but not many do so without some sort of trade agreement or without being part of some sort of trade bloc. And even fewer do so with their closest neighbours and partners. Despite what the foreign secretary Boris Johnson says, crashing out of the EU without any deal would not be “perfectly ok” and most senior figures in the UK government don’t really believe it would be either.
I am already exhausted. What else can we expect?
On Thursday the prime minister will publish a White Paper on the Great Repeal Bill, which will set out how Britain untangles itself from decades of EU laws and regulations. This in itself will be a political and bureaucratic nightmare all of its own.
Why is that? Surely we just repeal the European Communities Act and we are done.
Not quite. While much of EU law is effective through the ECA, much of it isn’t. According to the EU, there are around 20,000 EU legislative acts in force, of which 5,000 apply to all member states.
Huge parts of EU law are also embodied in our own primary and secondary UK legislation, while other parts are not really laws at all but judgments made by the Court of Justice, or rulings by EU regulators. Deciding which parts of this will need to be adopted or amended will be hugely difficult and take many years to do properly. Britain has about 18 months.
As Daniel Greenberg, a former Parliamentary council and expert on legislative law, told Business Insider, reviewing all that EU law to see what should be transferred, ditched or amended will be “a civil service legal exercise on a scale that has not been encountered at any other time in our recent legal history.”
Haven’t you forgotten about Scotland?
Oh yes, there is also the small matter of the possible break-up of the UK. On Tuesday the Scottish Parliament voted to hold a second independence referendum because of Brexit. May has since ruled out holding one before Brexit has “bedded in”, which might not be for many years. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is not likely to settle for that and will plot out her “next steps” to holding a referendum, after Easter.
Stop worrying. I am sure we will work something out.
We almost certainly will. The only real questions are what that something will be, how much it will cost us and how long it will take. Now that Article 50 has been triggered we can all start to find that out.
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