What does the General Election result mean for Brexit?
Article 50 was triggered on 29 March 2017 and within a month the Prime Minister Theresa May had called a snap General Election. It was widely reported that she did so in order to increase her majority in the House of Commons and restrict those who sought to frustrate her attempts to deliver Brexit.
Things did not go to plan and although she was returned as Prime Minister, Mrs May has lost her majority. With Brexit discussions due to start this next week, we ponder the impact that the General Election result is likely to have on the Brexit negotiations.
Both the UK and EU are maintaining that negotiations will begin as planned during the week commencing 19 June 2017, with informal talks continuing until this time to agree the format of the negotiations. It is likely that the formal talks will begin following the Queen’s Speech on 19 June 2017, although this could be delayed pending the finalisation of the “supply and confidence agreement” between the Conservative government and its new allies in the DUP.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has always left scope for flexibility for the UK by saying the negotiations would begin during the week of 19 June 2017 (rather than on the day itself) but it’s unclear whether he would be prepared to delay matters further should the Queen’s Speech be delayed.
Who will lead the UK in the negotiations?
The UK negotiation team will be led by Brexit secretary David Davis and his deputy is likely to be Oliver Robbins, who is the permanent secretary to the Department for Exiting the EU. Mr Davis and Mr Robbins are likely to be supported by senior civil servants.
The Prime Minister had earlier caused confusion by informing the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, that she would be leading the negotiations personally. This was seen by some European diplomats as an indication that Mrs May did not grasp the reality of how intense and technical the negotiation process.
What will be negotiated?
The two sides are divided on the schedule of negotiations, with the EU insisting on resolving the UK’s exit first before discussing future trade relations. The UK by contrast believes both of these key strands of the negotiations can be conducted simultaneously.
In reality, it seems likely that there will be early discussions on the divorce bill, citizens’ rights and the Irish border and that negotiations will only move on to the future relationship between the UK and the EU once sufficient progress has been made in these areas. It is therefore likely to be the autumn before the future trade relationship is on the agenda.
Will the General Election result have an impact on negotiations?
The view from the EU is that the election result will have no bearing on the Brexit negotiations or on the EU’s position within them. However, there are signs that the EU side fears that a weakened Prime Minister may be unable to persuade her party to agree to compromises, especially given that she will be reliant on the Brexit-backing DUP.
In any event, the EU side has indicated that it is still unclear about what the UK wants to achieve from the negotiations given that the UK Government has not sent them a single position paper.
Can the negotiations be stalled?
This seems highly unlikely, with the EU keen to avoid allowing the UK to dictate terms. Staling the talks would also undermine the general principles behind Article 50, which is to protect the interests of the EU from political manoeuvres by the country which is leaving.
Can the two year negotiation period be extended?
It is entirely possible for the negotiation period to be extended, although only with the unanimous consent of all of the remaining 27 EU countries. Many EU member states have indicated that they would be reluctant to extend the negotiations beyond the initial two year period including most notably France, which has previously indicated it would be keen for the UK to be out of the EU before European elections in mid-2019. The attitude in France may have softened with the election of Emmanuel Macron as its new President (see below).
Could article 50 be reversed?
There were a lot of headlines made following Theresa May’s recent trip to Paris to meet with the new French President, and not just because of Mexican wave, with Mr Macron suggesting that “the door will remain open” for the UK to remain in the EU up until it leaves.
Article 50 itself is silent on whether or not it can be withdrawn after it has been triggered and many EU officials and lawyers have debated the case for and against this being possible. Ultimately, if all 27 EU member states agree, it is a theoretical possibility, although one which is perhaps unlikely in reality.