The European Union’s top official says he has received the letter from Britain, formally triggering two years of Brexit talks.
European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted that “after nine months the UK has delivered,” referring to the time since the outcome of Britain’s June 23 referendum to leave the EU.
After nine months the UK has delivered. #Brexit
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) March 29, 2017
Britain’s Parliament allowed Prime Minister Theresa May to file for divorce from the European Union. Now comes the hard part — the arguments, the lawyers, the squabbles over money.
WHAT IS THE EU AND WHY IS BRITAIN LEAVING?
The EU is a bloc of 28 nations sharing relatively open borders, a single market in goods and services and — for 19 nations — a single currency, the euro. Britain joined in 1973, but has long been a somewhat reluctant member, with a large contingent of eurosceptic politicians and journalists regularly railing against regulations imposed by EU headquarters in Brussels.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron offered voters a referendum on EU membership, and in June they voted by 52-48 percent to leave.
HOW DOES BRITAIN FILE FOR DIVORCE?
A bill passed by Parliament authorizes the British government to invoke Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which says a member state may “notify the European Council of its intention” to leave the bloc.
Later this month, May is expected to send the notification in a letter to Council President Donald Tusk and then announce the news, probably to Parliament.
That sets a clock ticking: Article 50 says that two years from the moment of notification, “the Treaties shall cease to apply” and Britain will no longer be an EU member.
WHOSE MOVE IS IT NOW?
The timing of Article 50 was up to Britain. What happens next is up to the EU.
Tusk says that once EU officials get Britain’s notification, they will respond within 48 hours, offering draft negotiating guidelines for the 27 remaining member states to consider. Leaders of the 27 nations will then meet in April or May to finalize their negotiating platform.
“Then we meet and we start,” UK Brexit Secretary David Davis said Sunday. “And I guess the first meeting, bluntly, will be about how we do this? How many meetings, you know, who’s going to meet, who’s going to come.”
Substantial talks may have to wait until after France’s two-round April-May election for a new president. Another hiccup could be Germany’s September election, which will determine whether Chancellor Angela Merkel gets another term.
WHO CONDUCTS THE NEGOTIATIONS?
On the British side, Davis will take the lead, reporting to May. Britain’s ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, will also play a major role, and the Foreign Office will talk to individual member states to try to get them on its side.
On the EU side, it’s complicated. As Britain’s Institute for Government recently pointed out, “the UK is negotiating with 27 member states, not a unified bloc.”
French diplomat Michel Barnier is the chief negotiator for the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm. He’ll receive direction from the Council, which represents the leaders of the member states.
The European Parliament also wants a say, and will have to approve the final deal between Britain and the bloc.
WHAT IS THE MOST PRESSING ISSUE?
Britain’s vote to leave the EU has meant uncertainty for 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, and 1 million Britons who reside in the 27 other nations of the bloc. Both sides agree that giving such citizens a guarantee that they will be able to stay where they are is a top priority.
WHAT WILL BE THE MAIN CONFLICTS?
The first major battle is likely to be about money. The EU says Britain must pay a hefty divorce bill of up to 60 billion euros, to cover EU staff pensions and other expenses the UK has committed to. Britain hasn’t ruled out a payment, but is sure to quibble over the size of the tab.
There’s also likely to be friction over Britain’s desire to maintain free trade in goods and services with the bloc, without accepting the EU’s core principle of free movement of workers. Britain has said it will impose limits on immigration, and so will have to leave the EU’s single market and customs union. That makes some barriers to trade seem inevitable.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Negotiations will determine future relations between Britain’s estimated 65 million people and the roughly 435 million people living in the 27 other EU countries. Key questions include whether they will be able to live, work and study in each other’s countries and how freely goods and services can be transported between Britain and the EU.
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
The EU says Britain can’t leave without settling its bill, paying up for the U.K.’s share of staff pensions and projects it has already agreed to fund. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has put the figure at around 50 billion euros ($63 billion). Britain agrees it will have to pay something, but is sure to quibble over how much.
WHAT DO WE TALK ABOUT FIRST?
Substantive talks are unlikely to start until May at the earliest — after an April 29 summit of 27 EU leaders to settle their negotiating stance, and after France holds a May 7 presidential election. EU officials insist the divorce terms must be settled before talks on a new relationship can begin. Britain hopes the two tracks — divorce terms and future relationship — can run in parallel.
WHAT ARE THE RED LINES?
The EU says it will not compromise on its core “four freedoms”: free movement of goods, capital, services and workers. Britain insists that it must regain the right to control immigration and end free movement from other EU countries into Britain. May says Britain will leave the EU’s single market in goods and services and its tariff-free customs union, but nonetheless wants “frictionless” free trade. It is hard to see how the U.K. can impose immigration restrictions without facing some trade barriers.
DEAL OR NO DEAL?
Officials on both sides hope by 2019 either to have a deal, or an agreement to keep talking during a transitional period. But there is a third possibility, in which Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal. The final deal will have to be approved by both the British and European parliaments — and neither is guaranteed.
WHEN WILL IT BE OVER?
Under the terms of Article 50, Britain will cease to be an EU member in March 2019.
But EU negotiators warn it could take two years just to settle the divorce terms; agreeing on a new relationship for the UK and the EU could take years longer. If the rest of the EU agrees, the two-year negotiating period can be extended, leaving Britain in the EU for a while longer. Or, the two sides could agree on a transitional period.
There’s also a chance Britain could walk away early without a deal if it thinks the talks are going nowhere.
IS BREXIT A ONE-WAY TICKET?
The British government has said firmly that it will not backtrack on Brexit. But it’s unclear whether Article 50 is legally reversible. Former British ambassador to the EU John Kerr, who wrote Article 50, says “it is not irrevocable. You can change your mind while the process is going on.”
However, domestic political pressures make it unlikely that the British government would try a U-turn. May will probably take her cue from a catchphrase of predecessor Margaret Thatcher: “The lady’s not for turning.”