On 29 April, 2017 twenty-seven leaders of EU member-states – all except for Great Britain’s Prime Minister Teresa May, who will no longer be present at the bloc’s meetings – gathered in Brussels for the Special European Council on Article 50. All of the leaders demonstrated an outstanding and unprecedented unity regarding the guidelines for the negotiations with the UK, which were immediately adopted once the summit commenced.
The authors of Article 50 admit that they never expected this provision would be applied in practice, and therefore the procedure for leaving the EU is quite vague. Britain made a historical step into the unknown when they decided to exit from the EU, and the country has a long and uncertain road ahead.
In accordance with Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, Britain formally initiated the process of withdrawal from the EU on 29 March, starting the two-year countdown. During this period the conditions of “Brexit” should be agreed upon and approved by all EU member-states. If the parties fail to negotiate and reach an agreement, Great Britain’s membership in the EU will cease automatically and the country will face a much tougher version of the Brexit scenario.
In spite of the fact that the United Kingdom’s decision to the leave the EU has created significant tension and uncertainty, the EU member-states and Britain itself hope for a soft version of Brexit, with the UK remaining a close partner of the bloc.
The European Commission agreed upon a set of guidelines following the United Kingdom’s notification under Article 50 TEU during the 29 April meeting of the 27 EU member-states. The guidelines underline that the EU will maintain its unity, acting as one, with the aim of reaching a result that is fair and equitable for all member-states and their citizens. The bloc plans to conduct a constructive dialogue to find a common agreement that will represent the best interest of both the EU and Great Britain.
The Commission’s guidelines define the framework for negotiations under Article 50 TEU and set out the overall positions and principles that the EU member-states intend to pursue throughout this two-year ‘divorce’ period. It is underlined that the negotiations will be conducted in transparency and in a single package in accordance with the principle of ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.
London hopes for the simultaneous discussion of the conditions for its secession from the EU and for future trade relations. However, Brussels is quite persistent on the phased approach to the Brexit negotiations, which is consolidated among the core principles in the guidelines document. In his remarks on the Special European Council, President of the European Council Donald Tusk stated that ‘before negotiating our future relations with the UK, we must first achieve sufficient progress on citizens’ rights, finances, and the border issue in Ireland’.
During the first phase, financial negotiations will be one of the main issues addressed. The UK could be forced to pay up to 60 billion euros in compensation. However, EU member-states will also have a hard time – Britain was the EU’s second largest net donor after Germany, and this annual budget hole will have to be filled. The main burden will be imposed on such countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden.
Another priority for the first stage of negotiations is to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK. According to rough estimates, 3 million EU citizens live, study and work in United Kingdom, and about 1 million British citizens are in EU countries. The European Union demanded that Therese May should provide EU citizens residing in the UK with serious and real guarantees of their rights.
Furthermore, the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland will be included in the the upcoming talks, which will require flexible solutions, including the aim of avoiding a hard border, and respecting the integrity of the European Union legal order.
The EU will inform the public about each step of the negotiation process in order to ensure a clear understanding among citizens, companies, shareholders, and foreign partners of the immediate consequences of Britain’s withdrawal from the Union. This process will be supervised by the European Council, which will decide when it will possible to move to the next phase of negotiations, namely to determine future trade relations between Britain and continental Europe.
The European Council guidelines set forth in April also indicate that during the interim – while Great Britain formally remains a full member of the EU – the country cannot negotiate independently on any international trade agreements with non-EU countries, which is considered a violation of EU law.
In addition to trade, Brexit will seriously change European security and defense policy, and raise the question of what place Britain will take after the ‘divorce’ with Brussels, not only in Europe, but also in NATO.
The president of the European Commission has confirmed that ‘real talks’ between the EU and UK will begin as planned after the British general election on 8 June, 2017.