John Lehal: Triggering Article 50 is only the end of the beginning
The PM has numerous questions to answer as negotiations with the remaining 27 EU nations get under way.
Some 279 days after the referendum, Theresa May on Wednesday will deliver the ‘Article 50 notification’ to the EU, making official our intention to leave. The momentousness of the occasion hasn’t escaped Downing Street’s attention. Her letter will be “one of the most important documents in our country’s recent history”. The moment of our departure will be a “historic event”. The stakes could not be higher and the Prime Minister knows it.
So much time and so many column inches have been taken up in the debate around Article 50 – how it should be triggered, when and by who. The real challenge is what comes next. Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former chief diplomat to the EU, described Brexit as the biggest undertaking by the Government since the Second World War.
The scale and complexity of our negotiations with the remaining 27 EU nations is huge. We will first have to settle the terms of our exit. Brexit has often been described as being like a divorce, and with good reason as many of the issues to be decided are the same.
How will our jointly owned resources, such as our share of the capital of the European Investment Bank, be divided up? What will become of the projects that we have already embarked on as a full member of the EU? How much money might we owe the EU’s coffers to settle our debts as we leave?
These decisions on their own are difficult enough to navigate, but that is just the start. Ministers across Whitehall are keen on saying that the UK “is leaving the EU, but it is not leaving Europe”. Once the ‘divorce settlement’ is decided we will then need to work out how we will continue to exist with our 27 EU neighbours.
The difficulty, of course, is that the EU has impacted on almost every area of our national life over the last few decades. Deals and decisions will need to be made on everything from the UK’s customs and tariff arrangements and controlling our borders to which areas of our personal data we can share with European companies online.
That’s before we get to trade deals. Will we get full single market access or will we have to make individual, sector-by-sector deals? Can we put together some form of transitional arrangement while we work the details out? Could we end up with no deal at all and face a cliff-edge in March 2019?
As set out in the Guide to Brexit Mind Map published by Four Public Affairs, there are numerous thorny issues to cover and the way forward is anything but clear. What we do know is that we have at least two years of negotiation ahead of us and Brexit will dominate our national political discourse for quite some time.
Triggering Article 50 on Wednesday is not the beginning of the end. It is just the end of the beginning.
John Lehal is CEO of Four Public Affairs.