It’s finally here
After all the column inches, commentary and conjecture, Britain formally triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty this week – becoming the first country to do so. Despite the belief of Lord Kerr, the UK civil servant who drafted Article 50, that these provisions would be used by an authoritarian regime wishing to immediately depart the bloc, it was the UK that delivered this historic first.
The six-page letter from Theresa May to European Council President Donald Tusk was formally delivered by the Head of the UK Permanent Representation to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow. Mrs May attempted to perform a tricky balancing act in the correspondence. On one hand the Prime Minister noted the UK wished every success for the European bloc and how leaving the EU does not mean leaving behind shared values. But Mrs May was quickly the butt of criticism with the suggestion that failure to reach an agreement would result in weakened security cooperation, which was interpreted as a veiled threat to Member States.
For all the history of the occasion, it’s only now the real work of negotiation will begin in earnest. All sides have set out at least some of their red lines and have at times talked tough – as one does at the start of a negotiation. But now we’ll see where compromises and climb downs will be made.
“We already miss you. Thank you and goodbye”
Unusually punchy for an EU official, Council President Donald Tusk offered a brief statement upon formally receiving the UK’s notification. In a rare show of emotion, the Council President embraced the gravity of the occasion. But President Tusk was also mindful that, for all the sentiment, the time for serious business is approaching.
He was quick to emphasise that his duty was to safeguard the interests of the 27 member states and limit costs, both for citizens and businesses. Meanwhile and until the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations, EU law still applies for the UK.
In what could be seen as a silver lining for Europhiles, Tusk also noted that “Brexit has made us, the community of 27, more determined and more united than before.” This statement will certainly be put to the test throughout 2017, with the French elections looming in a month’s time, as well as during the whole of the negotiations for the UK’s exit. Will Theresa May try to expose and capitalise on any divisions between the 27? And if yes, how successful will she be? We shall find out in the next two years whether President Tusk’s affirmation that “we will act as one” holds water.
The message was clear: an emotional moment, but only a moment. Now there is work to be done.
The need for scrutiny and the need for speed
Following the triggering of Article 50, the UK Government published a White Paper on the Great Repeal Bill, which is the next important domestic milestone for the UK. The Bill will turn all directly applicable EU law into domestic law, but will end the supremacy of EU law in cases where new domestic legislation contradicts European legislation. The Bill will also give the UK Government the authority to correct elements of EU law applicable to the UK to address problems from the UK’s departure.
Most interestingly, the White Paper envisages that, in order for all this to take place, an estimated 800-1000 number of statutory instruments would have to go through the UK Parliament. In a nod to the scale of the task at hand, the White Paper underlines that the Government “is mindful of the need to ensure that the right balance is struck between the need for scrutiny and the need for speed”. This paper recognises that this number is an estimate and it is not possible to be “definitive” of the volume of legislation required, as this depends on the negotiations.
Since the referendum last year, questions have abounded over the capacity of the Civil Service to successfully transpose EU regulations into UK law and then review the thousands of rules affecting the population and economy. The White Paper has set out the process, but will do little to calm suggestions that the Civil Service is facing a thankless, possibly impossible task over the next two years.
The German connection
If Theresa May counted on building a rapport with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to achieve a more favourable result in the upcoming negotiations, this week might give her pause for thought. The Chancellor explicitly stated that an agreement must first be reached on the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU, before a future relationship is discussed. The UK has maintained that these issues can be discussed in parallel for a while, but Chancellor Merkel’s comments are the latest to pour cold water on those plans.
Meanwhile, adopting a hard line, the Chair of the European People’s Party (EPP, which includes Ms Merkel’s party) and German MEP Manfred Weber commented that he does not “care anymore” about the interests of the City of London, but rather about “Amsterdam and Dublin and Frankfurt am Main and Paris”. The EPP is currently the largest political group in the European Parliament and will be instrumental in approving any final negotiation between the EU and the UK.
Also in no mood to bring cheer to the British PM, the President of the German Association of the Automotive Industry, Matthias Wissmann suggested that a deal with the UK must not put the integrity of the internal market at risk.
Pre-negotiation posturing or not, these statements show that Germany, the strongest Member State in the 27 and a de facto leader of the bloc, is prepared to be tough during the negotiations and will be a force to be reckoned with. Theresa May will have her work cut out to get her way in discussing departure and future relationships at the same time (with the clock ticking) and can expect a challenge in getting what she wants, should Germany adopt a more bellicose position.
The Lothian question
A day before Theresa May’s letter was delivered to Donald Tusk, the Scottish Parliament voted by 69 to 59 votes to give Nicola Sturgeon the mandate to discuss a second independence referendum with the UK Government. The Government has to date been firmly opposed to any suggestion of holding an independence referendum in autumn 2018, but has shown some openness for 2019, after the Brexit negotiations have been completed. The question remains on how much of a thorn in Theresa May’s side and a distraction the issue of Scottish independence will be. Depending on how aggressively the SNP pursue an earlier referendum date, they have the potential to cause significant disruption in Whitehall, whose officials we have their hands full with the Brexit talks.
For information about the Brexit process, key negotiators and impact of the negotiations, please visit Project Brexit by clicking here.