Article 50 notice duly served — but what now?

There we have it — 278 days since the UK voted to leave the EU — Prime Minister Theresa May has sent her letter to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, formally notifying him and his colleagues that the UK intends to leave the bloc. The journey to this point has of course, not been free of bumps, with two court rulings blocking the PM from triggering Article 50 herself, leading to the ensuing saga of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act’s passage through both Houses of Parliament. While the PM may now breathe a sigh of relief in having met her self-imposed deadline of triggering the process by the end of March 2017, there is still a long road ahead.

Invoking Article 50 means official talks about the UK’s exit from the union can begin in earnest. But now comes the really hard part…

When will negotiations begin?
In theory, negotiations could begin the very next day. However, there are several notable events that will take place between Mrs May’s letter and the commencement of formal talks. Significantly, on 23 April will be the first round election for the French presidency, with a second round (if needed) to take place on 7 May. In between those dates, on 29 April, the remaining 27 Member States will hold a summit to discuss and agree amongst themselves how they will approach the Brexit negotiations.

All indications, therefore, point towards late May or June for the beginning of official talks.

How will the negotiations work?
There are two sets of negotiations that need to take place:

1. The terms of the UK’s exit, such as what cross-border security arrangements will be in place, the transfer of EU agencies currently in the UK back to the EU and what will happen to EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in EU countries. There will also be the contentious issue of how much the UK will have to pay as a ‘divorce bill’ that settles its current obligations as a member of the EU.

2. What the future trading relationship between the UK and EU will look like (for those of you who may be interested, the terms for how these negotiations will work are set out in Article 218 of the Lisbon Treaty). How this will pan out of course, remains to be seen, yet one thing that has been made clear by Theresa May is that the UK will not seek to continue its membership of the Single Market, meaning that a new trading relationship will in essence, have to be forged from scratch.

The UK has suggested that both these conversations should take place at the same time, yet EU officials have argued they should be handled separately. This will likely be decided at the summit of EU members (excluding the UK) being held at the end of April.

How long will negotiations take?
As I have discussed before, we are in uncharted waters. Estimated timeframes have ranged from as little as 18 months to possibly as long as five years. If an agreement between the UK and the rest of the EU cannot be achieved within the two-year window set out in Article 50, there is the framework to extend it, though only if there is unanimous agreement amongst the EU countries.

For any exit deal, it must be approved a ‘qualified majority’ of the remaining 27 European Council members — meaning in practice a minimum 20 states making up at least 65% of the EU’s population. Approval by the Council, however, can only take place once MEPs have had a say. Domestically, it will also have to be ratified by the UK Parliament.

The Great Repeal Bill
In addition, the UK Parliament will be passing the Great Repeal Bill. Announced last October, it will be included in the next Queen’s Speech (expected to be in May). The bill will repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, which took us into the EU (or European Economic Community as it then was — see my blog on the UK’s 1973 entry into the bloc).

In reality, Great Repeal Bill may be a slight misnomer. It will in fact be used to ‘cut and paste’ all applicable EU legislation into UK domestic law. Then from that, the Government has said it would ‘amend, repeal and improve’ any of those statutes as necessary. Like the negotiations, picking through and deciding what is fit for purpose and what isn’t also promises to be an arduous task.

What if no deal is reached?
In the event that no deal is struck and no extension agreed to, the UK will automatically leave the bloc on 29 March 2019 and, with that, all of its agreements. This would mean, for instance, that the UK would be locked out of the Single Market. There are assumptions at this stage that the UK would revert to World Trade Organization rules if this happened, but again, as with so much at this stage, this remains unclear. It may be that a transitional arrangement will be agreed.
Watch this space…

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