By failing to trigger Article 50 this week, Theresa May has given the EU reason to wait until June to set its negotiating mandate. It’s only after this is agreed that talks can start in earnest.
Given that perhaps six months will be needed at the end of the two-year process to ratify any deal, an already squeezed timetable is getting even shorter. Every missed deadline increases the risk that the prime minister could run out of time, leading to a ruinous “no deal” scenario.
EU leaders were expecting May to trigger Article 50 this week. Donald Tusk said at last Friday’s EU summit he’d respond in 48 hours. The European Council president needs to lay out broad guidelines for the negotiations and finalise a date for a summit of the other 27 EU leaders to approve them – something Angela Merkel said might happen on April 6.
But now it seems May won’t move until the last week of March, perhaps because she was blindsided by Nicola Sturgeon’s bid for Scottish independence. The April 6 summit may slip. A few days’ delay from the British could translate into weeks of delays on the EU side. France will not want these talks happening during its presidential elections (first round 23 April, second round 7 May), meaning the first summit to consider Brexit might not happen until late May.
But, even then, negotiations couldn’t start. The European Commission would first need to turn the European Council’s broad guidelines into a more detailed negotiating “mandate”. This would then need to be approved by either the other countries’ Europe ministers or their leaders. Such a meeting could happen any time between May and July, with June 20 touted as the most likely date.
Sturgeon’s call for an independence referendum is a reminder of how the Brexit talks can be hostage to external events. Both sides will have to factor in foreseeable occurrences like the German election as well as unpredictable ones like the feud with Turkey or Trump’s next moves.
Any complaint from May that the EU is dragging its heels to apply pressure is unlikely to wash. After all, Britain will have taken nine months from referendum to triggering Article 50.
Edited by Hugo Dixon