London/Brussels, March 20
Prime Minister Theresa May will trigger Britain’s divorce proceedings with the European Union on March 29, launching two years of negotiations that will reshape the future of the country and Europe. May’s government said her permanent envoy to the EU had informed European Council President Donald Tusk of the date when Britain intends to invoke Article 50 of its Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism for starting its exit after a referendum last June in which Britons voted by a 52-48 percent margin to leave the bloc. The EU said it was ready to begin the negotiations and within 48 hours of the trigger on March 29, Tusk will send the other 27 member states his draft negotiating guidelines, which means that talks could start in May. Sterling fell half a cent against the dollar on what Brexit minister David Davis described as a move taking Britain to “the threshold of the most important negotiation for this country for a generation”. “The government is clear in its aims: a deal that works for every nation and region of the UK and indeed for all of Europe – a new, positive partnership between the UK and our friends and allies in the European Union.” May, 60, hopes to negotiate terms that keep trade, financial and political relations with EU member states as close as possible after Brexit, but also satisfy eurosceptics in her Conservative Party who demand a complete break from an institution they say has stolen British sovereignty. It will be a difficult and ambitious balancing act. Talks on departing the prosperous club Britain joined in 1973 are likely to be the most complex London has held since World War II, with other EU leaders saying they will not give May an easy ride. With nationalism and anti-establishment, anti-immigrant sentiment spreading across Western Europe, the EU leadership in Brussels is anxious to avoid encouraging others in the 28-member bloc to bolt. At the same time, May faces threats by Scottish nationalists to call a new independence referendum that could break up the United Kingdom and fears in Northern Ireland that a “hard border” with EU member Ireland will return after Brexit. May has revealed little of her strategy for securing what she calls “the best possible deal” for the world’s fifth largest economy and making Brexit as painless as possible. Although she succeeded David Cameron as prime minister soon after the Brexit referendum, she delayed triggering Article 50 to give herself time to work on her strategy for talks that are likely to determine her political legacy. — Reuters
Countdown to divorce proceedings
The Article 50 letter
March 25: The other 27 EU leaders meet in Rome to mark 60 years since the bloc’s founding treaty. To avoid spoiling the party, May will wait till next week to file Britain’s divorce notice. March 29: May will write to European Council President Donald Tusk to trigger the withdrawal process. March 29-31: Within 48 hours, Tusk sends to the 27 other member states his draft negotiating guidelines.
After nearly a year of phoney war since the June 23 referendum vote to quit, British negotiators led by Brexit Secretary David Davis will sit down with the EU, possibly still in May. Talks may start with what to discuss first and how to split up topics.
The split deal
December 2017: Brussels wants a basic deal on a Withdrawal Treaty by year’s end. Key issues: the exit bill for Britain’s outstanding commitments; treatment of British and EU expats; dealing with outstanding EU legal cases; new border rules.
A new birth
March 30, 2019 (tentative): Britain leaves. At any rate, it should do so two years after May writes. It happens to be a non-working day, a Saturday. And avoids April Fool’s Day, April 1. The date could be fine-tuned. Britain could leave earlier if it gets a deal, and the two-year deadline can be extended if all agree. But Brussels wants Britain out before EU elections in May 2019. Despite mutual threats of no deal, few want such chaos.
A period of transition
May and EU leaders say transitional arrangements may well be needed, to give more time to agree a future trade deal and give people and businesses time to adjust to the divorce. Many see another two to five years after Brexit for a final settlement. If Scotland votes for independence, expect more years to negotiate its split from London and possible re-entry to the EU.