With Article 50 now triggered, one might think Brexit negotiations can begin straight away – but it’s not quite so simple. Indeed, there is already a dispute over how the talks take place.
The split was laid bare by two of yesterday’s key documents: firstly, the letter from Prime Minister Theresa May to EC president Donald Tusk, and secondly a draft motion leaked from the European Parliament.
In her letter to Tusk (the document that kicks off the UK’s exit from the European Union), the PM repeats no fewer than four times her desire to hold so-called parallel talks. The British government believes it cannot agree to any conditions of leaving the EU without, simultaneously, discussing the terms of its post-Brexit relationship with Brussels.
“We believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU,” May says, repeatedly, in her letter to Tusk.
Some MEPs, however, are resistant to the UK’s demand. A draft motion signed by former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt and several parliamentary groups, which was leaked yesterday, contains a sub-section ominously entitled “Sequencing of the negotiations”. Thereunder, it says withdrawal talks must come first and may only occur “while taking account of the framework of the UK’s future relationship with the Union” [italics added].
Only when “substantial progress” has been made towards the UK’s exit deal may the parties even start negotiating the terms of a “possible transitional arrangement”, it says.
And then, finally, as a third stage, a post-Brexit settlement can be agreed. “A future relationship agreement between the European Union and UK as a third country can only be concluded once the UK has withdrawn from the EU,” it says.
This rather strict approach to the talks is not shared across the whole of the EU, however. Many senior politicians at member states believe it would be unreasonable, and indeed impossible, to prevent exit talks from overlapping with the terms of a post-Brexit deal.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has previously welcomed parallel talks. Her comments yesterday seemed to represent something of a U-turn, but on closer examination she still believes negotiations around the future relationship can begin “hopefully soon”. Politicians in Spain and Italy appear to be malleable when it comes to the order of the talks.
With Article 50 triggered before the end of March, as promised, the UK has hit the ball cleanly into the EU’s court and will now await a response. Tusk has called a meeting of the remaining 27 EU states on 29 April at which he wants to adopt the negotiating guidelines for Brexit. The run-up to this event will start in Malta tomorrow when Tusk publishes his draft guidelines, allowing for four weeks of pan-European wrangling ahead of the deadline. During that time, we should get a clearer idea of how the talks will be structured – but expect some bad-tempered arguments along the way.