May to trigger Article 50 on 29 March

Nameplate for Michel Barnier's offices in the Berlaymont building, Brussels. He will lead Brexit negotiations for the Commission. [Matt Tempest/Flickr]

Theresa May will trigger Article 50 on 29 March, her office announced today (20 March), starting two-years of unprecedented negotiations for a country to leave the 28-member bloc for the first time.

Downing Street’s announcement of the date – as promised, by the end of March – came after an earlier expected announcement was torpedoed by the declaration of Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to hold a second referendum on independence.

A scheduled 6 April EU summit to discuss Brexit will now take place “within four to six weeks”, a source told AFP. Britain’s planned notification on 29 March “does not leave sufficient time” for a meeting that had initially been scheduled for 6 April, the source said.

Officially, Brussels reacted at its daily midday press conference, with Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas telling reporters: “Everything is ready on this side” and “we are ready to begin negotiations”.

The long-expected news came as May was in Cardiff, the Welsh capital, as part of a short tour of the UK’s devolved parliaments and assemblies, ahead of the 29 March date.

In Brussels itself, the news was delivered by the UK’s new ambassador, Tim Barrow, who informed Council President Donald Tusk this morning.

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In London, May’s spokesman said: “We want the negotiations to start promptly.”

Chief Brexit minister, David Davis, whose official title is Secretary of State for Exiting the EU – more dramatically said: “We are on the threshold of the most important negotiation for this country for a generation.”

The UK voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU in a referendum last June – although with no options or guidance on what form that so-called Brexit would take.

May has since hardened the government’s stance – after taking over as prime minister from David Cameron – into a ‘hard Brexit’ which will see the UK (including Scotland, which voted to remain) leave the single market and end free movement of people.

The Article 50 notification, under the Lisbon Treaty, gives two years for divorce talks – although that must also include ratification by the European Parliament, and is subject to a vote of national parliaments.

Michel Barnier, a French diplomat, will lead negotiations for the Commission, with Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt representing the Parliament.

At stake are also the several million EU citizens currently in the UK and UK nationals living or working in the EU, plus the future of the Northern Irish border with the Republic of Ireland.

SNP Brexit minister: There is no such thing as a UK 'single market'

On the day Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a new referendum on independence, EURACTIV.com quizzed the SNP’s Brexit minister in Brussels on whether Scotland could actually rejoin the EU and why pro-independence polls hadn’t budged since the Brexit vote in June.

Separately, last Monday (13 March) Sturgeon announced that such a hard Brexit would constitute the ‘material change’ enabling the Scottish Parliament to hold a second independence referendum.

Her preferred date was before the end of Brexit negotiations, from autumn 2018 to spring 2019, but that has been rejected by May.

The UK only joined the EU in January 1973, and then re-affirmed membership in a 1975 referendum, before voting to leave last  year.

Before a future trade deal between the UK and EU is negotiated, Brussels is demanding a ‘divorce’ bill of around €60bn, for Britain’s ongoing liabilities to the bloc.

Also at stake are various EU bodies located in the UK, and separately, the Euratom treaty on civil nuclear power.

The British government initially denied its parliament any say on triggering Article 50, before the Supreme Court insisted MPs have a say. Despite various objections from the House of Lords, that legislation was passed earlier this month.

If both the EU and UK agree, the two-year deadline set by Article 50 could be extended. On the other hand, if talks are not completed or break down, the UK would leave the EU and revert to World Trade Organisation tariffs.

The Theresa ‘come what May’ approach to Brexit. [Berco]

Timeline

June 23, 2016: 17.4 million Britons voted to end their 43-year-old membership of the European Union -- a proportion of 52 %to 48%.
A breakdown of the results shows England and Wales voted to leave, while Scotland and Northern Ireland opted to remain.

Sterling falls
The result took markets by surprise, although they soon recovered. The blow to sterling lasted longer -- since the referendum, the pound has lost between 15 and 16% of its value against the dollar and the euro.

June 24, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the referendum and led the campaign to stay in, announced his resignation. He said he would stay on until a successor was found, sparking a leadership race that in the end proved remarkably swift. Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson withdrew at the last minute and Theresa May, Cameron's interior minister for six years, was crowned leader on July 11.

July 13: May became prime minister, appointing three leading eurosceptics to senior posts in her government and promising to implement Brexit. Johnson became foreign secretary, Liam Fox became international trade secretary and David Davis was put in charge of a new Brexit ministry.

October 2: May said that Britain will trigger Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon treaty, which sets out a two-year process of leaving the bloc, before the end of March 2017.

November 3: the High Court in London ruled that the government must obtain parliamentary approval to begin the Brexit process. The Daily Mail tabloid condemned the judges as "Enemies of the People" and May appealed. On January 24, 2017, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling.

January 17, 2017: May gave a major speech setting out her strategy for Brexit. She had previously promised to cut migration from the EU and now acknowledged this would mean Britain leaving Europe's single market. She warned she was willing to walk away from the negotiations with Brussels, saying: "No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain."

January 27: May became the first foreign leader to visit newly elected US President Donald Trump at the White House. He called Britain's decision to leave the EU a "wonderful thing" and hailed
the "special relationship" between the two countries.

March 13: Britain's parliament gave final approval to a bill empowering May to trigger Article 50.
The House of Lords had passed amendments to guarantee the status of European nationals living in Britain and to give parliament a final vote on the final deal. But these were overturned by the House of Commons and the bill passed unamended. Receiving formal royal assent from Queen Elizabeth II on March 16.

March 13: Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would press ahead with plans for an independence referendum before Britain leaves the EU. She said her proposals for Scotland to be allowed to stay in the European single market had been met with "a brick wall of intransigence" from the government. May responded with an impassioned defence of Britain's "precious" union and
by accusing Sturgeon of "tunnel vision" on independence. May said "now is not the time" to be talking about another referendum, less than three years after the last one in which Scotland voted to stay in Britain.

March 20: The government said it would trigger Article 50 on March 29 in the form of a letter to EU President Donald Tusk. "We are on the threshold of the most important negotiation for this country
for a generation," Brexit minister David Davis said. The European Commission responded saying: "We are ready to begin negotiations".