Just over nine months after the UK’s historic vote to leave the European Union the government will this week start the formal proceedings for leaving the bloc by triggering article 50.
What is article 50?
Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty sets out how an EU member can voluntarily leave the European Union.
It specifies that a leaver should notify the European council of its intention, negotiate a deal on its withdrawal and establish legal grounds for a future relationship with the EU.
Has it ever been invoked before?
No. Greenland was the last country to vote to leave the bloc, but that involved the EEC, the precursor to the EU, long before article 50 had been drafted.
What is ‘triggered’ by article 50?
Once a country gives notice it wants to leave it has two years to negotiate new arrangements, after which it will no longer be subject to EU treaties.
Most of the article is fairly vague, but on this two-year timeframe the wording is unequivocal. Any extension can only be granted by unlikely unanimous agreement.
The word trigger is used because invoking article 50 fires the starting gun on that two-year race to reach an agreement.
What if an agreement is not reached in two years?
The UK would still be set to leave the EU by 29 March 2019 but with no agreement there would be no provisions in place for its legal and trading relations with the bloc. Theresa May has warned that she is prepared to walk away from negotiations if she does not get what she wants. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she said in January.
Is triggering article 50 irrevocable?
No. Lord Kerr, Britain’s former ambassador to the EU who drafted article 50, said: “It is not irrevocable. You can change your mind while the process is going on.” When the justice secretary, Liz Truss, said triggering article 50 was “irrevocable” and a “one-way ticket”, Downing Street distanced itself from the claim.
How and when will article 50 be triggered?
The Brexit starting pistol is fired on Wednesday 29 March, when the government delivers a letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European council. At up to eight pages long, the letter is expected to be considerably longer than article 50 itself. Theresa May is expected to make a statement to MPs explaining the wording.
On Thursday the Brexit secretary, David Davis, will publish the government’s “great repeal bill”. This will set out an end to the authority of EU law by converting all its provisions in British law once the UK leaves.
How will the EU respond?
Tusk has promised that he will respond by Friday with “draft Brexit guidelines”.
But the formal response from EU leaders is unlikely to come before a summit on 29 April, when the other EU countries meet, without the UK, to discuss guidelines for the negotiations.
When will negotiations proper begin?
Not until after the second round of the French presidential election on 7 May at the earliest, and perhaps as late as June.
How long will they take?
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said he envisages there being less than 18 months of real negotiating time. The crucial window is likely to be the year from October 2017, after the German elections on 24 September. Barnier said he hoped to begin the process of ratification by the European parliament by October 2018.
The UK must agree on new terms with the EU in a vast number of areas, including freedom of movement, trade, security and financial regulations.
Below are just some of the subjects that the UK and EU’s top diplomats will be discussing.
One of the key reasons for the Brexit vote was immigration, particularly concerns among some segments of the UK over the purported effect migrants from Eastern European countries were having on British services, such as healthcare and education.
Research by the London School of Economics suggests EU migrants have little effect on the unemployment rate of British nationals, put relatively little strain on services, and actually bring with them a number of economic benefits.
The UK is, therefore, unlikely to demand a full halt on immigration but will seek to balance the economic benefits it brings with rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the country.
Freedom of movement
The UK’s Home Secretary Amber Rudd has promised that Brexit will change freedom of movement “as we know it”, meaning significant change from the current status quo in which Britons can live, work and do business in EU states without visas and with the same rights locals of those countries have and vice versa.
British diplomats will be hoping to maintain as many of these privileges as possible for their nationals while satisfying demands for restrictions on inward migration of EU nationals into the UK.
An end to freedom of movement will result in the UK’s exclusion from the single market, a tariff-free trading zone that currently spans 32 countries.
The European Council president, Donald Tusk, has warned the UK that it cannot have “a la carte” access to the parts of the EU that it wants while rejecting parts it doesn’t.
In January, May seemed to accept as much, equating membership of the single market with EU membership itself.
A complete redrawing of trade relations could take years and will involve separate negotiations for various different industrial sectors.
A key area of concern will be the UK’s border with the Republic of Ireland, as border communities and even unionists in Northern Ireland fiercely oppose the introduction of a physical border between the two.
Ending unimpeded travel between the two will particularly heighten tensions between the UK government and Republican communities, with many openly mulling renewed attempts at unifying the island.
Status of existing residents
About 1.2m Britons live in another EU state and an estimated 3.2m EU nationals live in the UK.
May has avoided giving guarantees on what happens to those living in the UK, pending what EU states decide on British nationals living in their countries.
Perhaps the one area the EU and the UK will quickly find common ground is in security and intelligence cooperation.
European states face common threats in the form of groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and in countries, such as Russia, which has sought to influence the internal politics of several EU states.
Passporting rights allow businesses registered in one member of the single market to operate in another without any further registration.
Failure to secure passporting rights would force companies based in the UK to register separately in a European single market country. The process for doing so would be long and costly.
That could lead to them uprooting from the UK altogether to access the larger EU market to the detriment of London’s status as a global financial hub.