Brexit means … what, exactly?
The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union.
That much is clear, assuming the stars don’t align and send a bewildered Tim Farron to Downing Street in June’s general election. What isn’t clear, however, is what comes next: what the next two years of Brexit talks will look like, and what the aftermath to such talks will be. These will be difficult issues to address, given how both sides are playing their cards close to their chests. This comes as no surprise. As with any divorce, neither side wants to emerge from the process at a disadvantage, nor having lost face. A relationship that was previously just uneasy has now become one dominated by second-guessing and bravado, ahead of talks set to begin later this year. Not least is the fact that the upcoming UK general election was called, as Theresa May freely admitted, to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations.
a starting pistol being fired on the Brexit process, giving the negotiating teams just two years to hammer out a deal
Article 50 of the EU Treaty was invoked by the Prime Minister on 29 March, formally notifying the EU that Britain is heading for the door. It constitutes a starting pistol being fired on the Brexit process, giving the negotiating teams just two years to hammer out a deal. It is important at this point, however, to note that even the timetable itself is up for discussion.
the talks may be effectively delayed until after important elections in France and Germany to ensure the so-called ‘twin engine’ of the EU has stable leadership
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, indicated in December 2016 that the negotiation period cannot span the entire two years due to the need to review and ratify the final agreement, and should take place between March 2017 and October 2018. While this is the goal of the British government – described as “absolutely ample” time by Boris Johnson – it is an unlikely possibility that everything will be agreed by then. Suffice to say, Barnier’s timetable has been complicated by the calling of a UK general election for 8 June, and EU officials now expect the official negotiating process to begin afterwards. Even prior to this, there had been suggestions that the talks may be effectively delayed until after important elections in France and Germany to ensure the so-called ‘twin engine’ of the EU has stable leadership. The Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has gone as far as to state that it will be ‘impossible’ for a deal to be drawn up completely by the time Britain formally leaves. This has led to speculation concerning the possibility of a transitional arrangement that would come into effect on Brexit Day in 2019, giving the negotiating teams more time to discuss the details without a looming deadline. Whether these further negotiations would last another two, five, or ten years is also up for debate.
the principle of freedom of movement is incompatible with her desire to control immigration
It will be no simple task to decouple the British political and economic machine from that of Europe. The most contentious area of discussion will doubtlessly be a free trade agreement, one that the British government hopes mirrors current access to the single market as much as possible. This is necessary given Theresa May’s indication that Britain will withdraw from the single market, citing that the principle of freedom of movement is incompatible with her desire to control immigration. Hostility from EU officials to the prospect of a special deal for Britain, not least the warning from Angela Merkel that there could be ‘no cherry picking’ by British officials, reinforces the notion that this will prove an extremely complicated area of negotiation. This is the case even without considering the need to negotiate a new relationship regarding financial services, in particular links between the City of London – the financial hub of Europe – and European financial institutions. The Sword of Damocles hanging over these negotiations, and indeed one openly mused about by the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is the implicit threat that Britain could transform itself into a tax haven on Europe’s doorstep should the final agreement not provide adequate protections for the British economy.
the possibility of using EU citizens resident in the UK as so-called ‘bargaining chips’ to bolster the UK’s negotiating position
There is, of course, a non-economic dimension to the Brexit talks. There has been significant concern about the possibility of using EU citizens resident in the UK as so-called ‘bargaining chips’ to bolster the UK’s negotiating position. This has been roundly condemned, although, as recently as in January the Home Office’s stance was that no assurances would be given until similar assurances were given for British citizens in EU countries. Concerns closer to home, for instance the Erasmus programme for university students, poses a further risk to existing residents. Whilst Steve Smith, Exeter’s Vice Chancellor, has reassured European students that there will be ‘no immediate changes’ to their status, and Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, pledged his support for efforts to retain Erasmus membership, there have been no solid assurances.
Britain will leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice
Areas of further contention include May’s uncompromising assertion that Britain will leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, a controversial proposal for a divorce bill with a proposed sum of €60m, and the sensitive issue of the Irish border. The latter in particular will have significant effects domestically. Current commitments under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement removed border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, although Brexit raises new issues given the paradox between an open section of UK-EU border and Britain regaining control of immigration policy. The Leave rallying cry of ‘Take Back Control’ of the borders, unofficially adopted by the May government, is rendered moot if European citizens can simply cross the Irish border freely and enter the UK without checks. The inability of unionist and nationalist parties in Northern Ireland to negotiate a stable devolved executive since January only complicates matters further.
the risk remains that Britain will be made an example of in order to beat back Eurosceptic sentiment in the rest of the EU
Regardless of whatever the deal looks like, Britain will be formally leaving the European Union in the spring of 2019. There will be testing times ahead for both negotiating teams on a myriad of issues, and it can be assumed that EU officials want to dissuade the prospect of an Independence May: Resurgence taking place in any other member state. With elections to the European Parliament scheduled to take place just months after Brexit takes place, the risk remains that Britain will be made an example of in order to beat back Eurosceptic sentiment in the rest of the EU.
There is little for the rest of us to do but to sit back and watch as the Brexit freight train slowly rumbles towards us for the next two years.
Brace for impact, but do please put the kettle on.