The moment finally arrived. In retrospect, the beginning of the UK’s journey out of the EU was most remarkable for its sense of normality. A photo of the Prime Minister looking at paper work in the Cabinet Room, a statement to the House of Commons and an interview on the BBC. It could have been Budget Day or the Queen’s Speech and not the start of a two year negotiation that will fundamentally change the way the UK operates. However, while both the Prime Minister and the EU have vowed to enter negotiations in a spirit of co-operation, signs are already starting to emerge that talks might not be as straightforward as Theresa May might have hoped.
Wait a minute, Mr Postman
This is the way Brexit begins; not with a bang, but with a letter. Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s Ambassador to the EU, was dispatched to Brussels carrying two copies of Theresa May’s letter triggering Article 50. It was over in an instant. Sir Tim gave the letter to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, the two men shook hands and the deed was done. The Brexit process is underway.
Ten minutes later, Theresa May was on her feet in the Commons outlining her approach to the negotiations. Both the Prime Minister’s statement and the letter itself struck a more conciliatory tone than we’ve perhaps come to expect. May acknowledged the “momentous” task ahead, but outlined her hopes for “a new deep and special partnership with a strong European Union”. She praised the “liberal democratic” values held by the EU and stressed the importance of its place in the world. In another subtle shift in tone, her letter to President Tusk acknowledged the need for a “fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state” – in other words, a cash payment to the EU27.
If May’s aim was to sound collaborative, the EU’s response was elegiac. “There is no reason to pretend this is a happy day”, President Tusk told the press, clutching May’s six page letter in his hand. He took no questions, simply ending his statement by saying “we already miss you. Thank you and goodbye.”
The difficult road ahead
While both Brussels and Westminster were keen to set off on the right footing, the first stumbling blocks were soon in sight. The day after publishing her letter, op-eds from Theresa May appeared in newspapers across the rest of Europe in an attempt to underline her good intentions. Back at home, British newspapers led with a perceived threat from Whitehall to stop co-operating on anti-terror and law enforcement measures if the UK doesn’t get the deal it wants. Needless to say, this put a dampener on May’s good will mission.
The Prime Minister had also hoped that we could negotiate our exit from the EU in parallel with a new trade deal. It quickly became clear that the EU would insist on a sequential negotiation instead. Angela Merkel rejected May’s approach within hours of May’s Commons statement. The European Council’s draft approach to negotiations also called for a phased approach and highlighted that trade talks could only begin after “sufficient progress” had been made on divorce terms. With talks unlikely to begin in earnest until after the French and German elections, it is clear that coming to an agreement within the two years specified by Article 50 will be hugely challenging.
Trouble at home
The Government also gave some indication of how Brexit might work at home this week as David Davis published a White Paper on the proposed ‘Great Repeal Bill’. This new legislation will aim to translate the entirety of the ‘acquis communautaire’ – the full body of EU law – into the UK’s statute books in one fell swoop.
On its own, this is a monumental undertaking and concerns have already been raised about how Whitehall plans to go about it. According to the White Paper, Ministers will have broad new powers to ‘correct’ laws where necessary to smooth our exit from the EU. These so-called ‘Henry VIII powers’ will also allow these changes to occur without Parliament being involved. With the Brexit vote predicated on the need for Parliament to “take back control” from Brussels, expect MPs to be less than impressed with this new power grab. With the Government contending with a perilously small Commons majority, it looks like trouble ahead.
Week in Quotes
“The Government wants to approach our discussions with ambition, giving citizens and businesses in the United Kingdom and the European Union – and indeed from third countries around the world – as much certainty as possible, as early as possible.” – Theresa May’s letter to Donald Tusk.
“Paradoxically, there is also something positive in Brexit. Brexit has made us, the community of 27, more determined and more united than before.” – Donald Tusk says the EU27 will stand together during Brexit talks.
“The idea that the intellectual conviction of the last 70 years of Conservative leadership on this subject can be flip-flopped is asking too much of those of us who believe that our self-interest as a nation is inextricably interwoven with our European allies.” – Lord Heseltine tells the New Statesman about his disappointment with the Prime Minister.