One of the biggest events in Britain’s postwar history is at hand, as Theresa May notifies the EU of the UK’s plans to withdraw.
Both the British government and its critics agree that after the prime minister’s activation of the Article 50 divorce clause in the EU treaty, scheduled for Wednesday, there is no way back.
At stake are not just the country’s ties with its European neighbours — the largest trading bloc in the world — but its economic relations with many other states. All sides of the debate agree that Brexit will shape what kind of country the UK becomes once it ends more than four decades of EU membership.
The country’s prospects will in large part depend on the 262 words of Article 50.
What is Article 50?
Introduced in 2009, Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union provides the formal exit mechanism for a country wishing to leave the EU.
Its key provision is that, in the absence of a unanimous agreement to extend negotiations, a country activating the clause will leave the bloc two years after notification. That means Britain will be out of the EU by April 2019.
The text of the article says the EU will “negotiate and conclude an agreement with [an exiting member] state, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union”.
So while the negotiations are specifically about divorce — dealing with issues such as financial obligations and expatriate rights — future ties between the EU and the UK also play a part.
How will a deal be ratified and is Article 50 revocable?
A comprehensive trade deal would be separate from an Article 50 agreement and would require unanimity among member states. That is a higher hurdle than the requirements for the exit agreement itself, which needs to be backed by the UK, a “super qualified majority” of the other EU countries (at least 72 per cent of the states representing 65 per cent of the population) and the European Parliament
While John Kerr, the former British diplomat who drafted Article 50, argues it can be reversed, both the UK and European Commission lawyers say the divorce clause is irrevocable.
What happens when Article 50 is triggered?
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said recently that the EU could respond with draft guidelines for the divorce negotiations within 48 hours. But the formal response will require the endorsement of leaders of the EU’s other 27 countries at a summit on April 29.
At issue will be the content and structure of the talks with the UK — whether to insist, as does Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, that the two sides first negotiate over the UK’s exit bill and the rights of citizens before beginning talks on future ties.
Britain opposes this sequential approach and puts a higher priority than Mr Barnier on striking a trade deal, and not just a divorce agreement, within the two years set out by Article 50.
When will the real negotiations start?
Formal talks cannot take place until the member states give the European Commission a more detailed, and confidential, negotiating mandate. So the first face-to-face encounter is unlikely before late May.
The UK wants to agree any transition measures by March 2018. Mr Barnier has set October 2018 as the deadline to agree the deal, to allow time for ratification.
What is the British government looking for?
After months in which she was relatively coy about Britain’s ambitions, Mrs May became much clearer about her goals in a speech in January and a subsequent white paper. Her government wants to control the number of people who come to Britain from Europe and end the European Court of Justice’s sway over British law.
Mrs May acknowledges that those conditions mean the country will leave the EU’s single market and customs union, since that would prohibit the UK from striking trade deals of its own. But she still wants Britain to have a customs agreement of some sort with the EU, and a “new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free-trade agreement” with the bloc.
Mrs May also wants to maintain the common travel area between the Republic of Ireland rather than “return to the borders of the past”.
On one of the most sensitive issues facing both sides, she said in her January speech that “we want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain, and the rights of British nationals in other member states, as early as we can”.
What the two sides say
“We seek a new and equal partnership — between an independent, self-governing, global Britain and our friends and allies in the EU. Not partial membership of the EU, associate membership of the EU, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out.
Theresa May, speech at Lancaster House, January 17 2017
“When a country leaves the union, there is no punishment. There is no price to pay to leave. But we must settle the account . . . In making this choice, the UK automatically will be in a less favourable situation than an EU member state.”
Michel Barnier, speech in Brussels, March 22 2017
Is there going to be a deal?
In an article for the Financial Times in January, Lord Kerr highlighted the sheer complexity of the talks, the limited time available and the likelihood, as he saw it, that the negotiating efforts would fall short.
The veteran diplomat wrote: “Clearly there is a less than 50/50 chance of a comprehensive triple agreement by March 2019 — on the withdrawal terms, a substantive framework permitting real progress on future trade terms and a detailed implementation agreement. The UK might still leave then, with a money deal but only a thin framework, or with no deal at all. That would mean legal uncertainty and economic disruption. Or extra time could be sought.”
Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, maintains that two years would be “absolutely ample” time to reach an agreement. But he has also said it would be “perfectly OK” to walk away without a deal.