All you wanted to know about Article 50 but never dared ask

by Luke Lythgoe & Hugo Dixon | 29.03.2017

Pressing the Article 50 button isn’t the end of the Brexit process, or even the beginning of the end. Here’s our guide to 18 twists and turns in store over the next two years.

In Brussels

1. Time pressure

Article 50 allows for two years to complete our divorce deal. But, in fact, it’s more like 18 months as there needs to be time at the end to ratify what’s agreed. Moreover, the talks may only start in earnest after the German elections in September. Given the huge number of complex issues to be discussed, there will be a race against the clock.

2. Alimony

Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, insisted last week that the UK must pay around £50 billion when we quit. Although Brexiters have latched onto a House of Lords report suggesting we have no legal liabilities, the peers’ argument is weak and the £50 billion figure is grounded in reality. British voters, who were sold the lie that Brexit meant an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, may be in for some bad news.

3. Right to remain

Will the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and the million Brits living in the rest of the EU be able to keep all their rights post-Brexit? Theresa May says dealing with this is a priority. So does Michel Barnier. But the European Commission’s chief negotiator also says resolving all the complex issues involved will take several months.

4. Will Article 50 and a future deal be negotiated in parallel?

Barnier insists the negotiations cannot move onto trade until the principles of an “orderly withdrawal” – such as the rights of citizens and the divorce payment – have been settled. If the EU doesn’t budge, the prime minister faces a potential elephant trap: agreeing to a giant alimony payment without knowing we’ll get access to the EU market.

5. Cliff edge

It will probably take several more years after the Article 50 period is finished to agree an ambitious free trade deal with the EU. So we’ll need a transitional arrangement to make sure we don’t fall off a cliff. To get one, the government may have to swallow more bitter pills. For example, Barnier has already said it will have to be subject to “the framework of European law”. The European Court of Justice is a red rag to Brexiter bulls.

6. Not just trade

We will want a new relationship that doesn’t just cover trade. Other areas where we’ll want to cooperate include: fighting crime and terrorism, sanctions against Russia, access to nuclear materials, environmental standards and scientific research. If there’s no time to reach full deals in these areas, we’ll need transitional agreements for them too.

7. Hard border in Ireland

It won’t be easy to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the republic open while pulling the UK out of the customs union. Sinn Fein enjoyed unprecedented success in the recent Stormont elections on the back of voters’ Brexit concerns. Murmurings of an Irish reunification referendum are now in the air.

Back in Britain

8. Great Copy-and-Paste Bill

The government hopes to avoid a regulatory black hole post-Brexit by passing legislation that copies and pastes all EU rules into UK law. It then hopes to amend or remove some of these by taking on Henry VIII powers that would allow it to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny. The legislation, named the Great Repeal Bill in Orwellian style, may get a rough ride in Parliament.

9. Fifteen new laws?

The government may need as many as 15 different bills before we quit the EU. The most controversial will reform the migration system. The new legislation will gum up government and parliament, preventing them focussing on priorities such as the NHS, care for the elderly, housing and infrastructure.

10. Legal minefield

The Supreme Court ruling that the prime minister needed parliamentary approval before triggering Article 50 may not be the last legal headache. Gina Miller, who brought the Article 50 case, has threatened legal action if Parliament isn’t given a vote at the end of the Brexit process. There is already a separate case asking whether we can change our mind once Article 50 is triggered. Lawyers may also be able to argue that a referendum to approve any Brexit deal is required under the old “referendum lock” legislation.

11. Trumped up

1.9 million people signed a parliamentary petition to stop Donald Trump’s state visit. Pro-Europeans will use his trip, which may occur in October, to further their anti-Brexit cause – arguing that it is crazy to turn our backs on our closest allies in order to suck up to a racist, misogynist president who doesn’t have our interests at heart.

12. Indyref redux

Brexiters promised another Scottish “indyref” wouldn’t happen. Nicola Sturgeon plans to prove them wrong. The SNP leader will harry May throughout the Brexit talks in order to advance her agenda.

13. Snap general election

Downing Street has denied that May has any plans to call an early election. Although this would probably give the prime minister a bigger majority, it would open her Brexit plans to scrutiny. She will also be wary of the resurgent Lib Dems and several of her own MPs being investigated over 2015 electoral spending.

14. Post-Corbyn?

If Labour chose a new leader, we might finally have an effective opposition. Even Unite’s Len McCluskey has put Jeremy Corbyn on 15 months’ notice. The snag is that any change of leader may come too late to make a difference to Brexit.

After the talks

15. It’s the economy, stupid

So far the main economic hits from Brexit have been the pound’s plunge and a rise in inflation. But as it becomes clear how much damage will be caused by May’s decision to pull the UK out of EU’s single market and customs union, the economy could slow and firms could shift jobs abroad. If this starts to happen before the two year period is up, Brexit may become unpopular with voters.

16. European Parliament gets its say

After negotiators have agreed a deal, consent of the European Parliament must be sought. One senior MEP has already made clear the parliament will “not be an easy partner”.

17. Bad deal

The government has promised a vote in Parliament on a deal, though this isn’t written into the legislation. If May comes back with a bad deal, might MPs tell her to go back to the negotiating table? She might then instead try to call an election – though the Fixed Term Parliaments Act means that’s not easy.

18. No deal

It would be bonkers to crash out of the EU without a deal. But hardline Brexiters are getting May to set so many red lines that this can’t be ruled out. In the event of the talks breaking down, the government has merely offered a statement in Parliament. But if public opinion is turning against Brexit, MPs may tell the prime minister that’s not good enough. They could even say there should be a new referendum to determine whether the public still wants to leave the EU now they know what Brexit means.

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    4 Responses to “All you wanted to know about Article 50 but never dared ask”

    • There is some talk that the referendum act is only advisory. I have looked through the text of the act, but not being a lawyer I cannot find the relevant part that makes it clear to me. Could you clarify this for me so that I have arguments on my side when I try to put that point to the Brexiteers

    • Did McCluskey really give Corbyn 15 months?
      …. “John Pienaar interviewed Unite the union’s Len McCluskey on his Pienaar’s Politics show on 26 March. McCluskey is currently standing for re-election as general secretary of Unite. During the BBC Radio 5 live programme, Pienaar asked McCluskey whether he believed Corbyn can take the Labour Party back into government at the next general election. McCluskey said that Corbyn should have the opportunity to put his case to the British people. He also said:
      “I would suggest that the next fifteen months or so will give us the answers to that.”

      “McCluskey directly identified the media’s role in giving Corbyn that opportunity. But the response to McCluskey’s single sentence suggested that media outlets don’t plan on heeding his call.
      “Pienaar seized on McCluskey’s “fifteen months” figure. He asked whether McCluskey was suggesting Corbyn should stand aside after that time had passed if the polls haven’t turned around. McCluskey responded:
      “You’ve been at me for months and months to kind of come up with timescales, I’m not going to do that.”……..”