Friday 19 January 2018

Just because Article 50 is triggered doesn't mean we can get down to negotiating

British Prime Minister Theresa May (left) meets with Nicola Sturgeon at Bute House in Edinburgh. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
British Prime Minister Theresa May (left) meets with Nicola Sturgeon at Bute House in Edinburgh. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

After almost nine months of analysing what Brexit could mean, we're on the cusp of divorce proceedings being launched.

But don't expect that when Article 50 is triggered by Theresa May - be it today, tomorrow or at some point by the end of the month - that the two sides are going to suddenly knuckle down and start the complex task of unravelling the relationship.

It could be May at the earliest before talks officially begin. First we have to have the talks about the talks.

Mrs May, once she triggers Article 50, will likely lay out her proposals in a letter accompanying the request. These are expected to be along the lines of her Lancaster House speech in January, in which she made it clear that the UK would leave the single market.

European Council President Donald Tusk is likely to reply within a matter of days, but this is expected to be a short response.

Depending on the timing of Mrs May's letter to Brussels formally involving the exit clause, a special European Council meeting of heads of government will have to be called for the remaining 27 member states either early in April, or by the end of that month.

The period between invoking the exit clause and the leaders' gathering will give Brussels's impressive bureaucratic machine the chance to set out in some detail the potential negotiating guidelines for the talks process. This will then be presented by Mr Tusk at April's special Brexit summit.

More detailed negotiating objectives will also be drawn up for agreement by the General Affairs Council, attended by EU Ministers for Foreign Affairs. After all this, assuming we have agreement, negotiations proper can then begin.

Officials here believe the early stages of the talks process will be dominated by sparring over what issues should be dealt with first.

From the EU perspective, the question of whether Britain should agree to cough up billions of euro to secure its exit should take centre stage early on, along with the rights of expatriate EU citizens living in Britain, whereas London may prefer to focus on the terms of its future relationship. Even if both sides agree to focus on the money, there'll likely be no end of disputes over the final bill, as Britain has already rejected the €60bn tally that's been floated.

It's very likely, therefore, that very little will get done before the process breaks up for the summer recess.

While the Commission is chief negotiator on behalf of Ireland and the remaining EU countries, the Government is keen to point out that the talks process will be closely monitored by member states, with input at political and official level.

Mr Tusk is expected to have a representative in meetings. There'll also be a representative from the country holding the rotating EU Presidency, which until July is Malta.

The weekly meeting of ambassadors will also discuss proceedings, which in turn will report to Foreign Affairs Ministers at the General Affairs Council. That in turn feeds into European Council meetings.

"The idea that the Commission is sent off into the wilderness and then comes back in two years time, couldn't be further from the truth," one Irish Government source with knowledge of the process said.

Key for Ireland is ensuring that our concerns are taken account of in the talks process. Irish officials centrally involved in Brexit preparations have been speaking to their European counterparts, in person and via video conferencing.

In some cases these meetings last for several hours, much longer than at the political level. They focus on teasing out what other member states want from the negotiating process, the strategies to be employed, the potential outcomes.

The Government appears confident that the Irish questions - including Northern Ireland - are being put on the radar across Europe.

Time will tell.

Irish Independent

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