Wednesday 21 March 2018

The bigger picture: Eight questions you have about EU and Brexit today

A woman reads a newspaper on the underground in London with a 'vote remain' advert for the BREXIT referendum, Britain June 22, 2016. REUTERS/Russell Boyce
A woman reads a newspaper on the underground in London with a 'vote remain' advert for the BREXIT referendum, Britain June 22, 2016. REUTERS/Russell Boyce
John Downing

John Downing

The UK has opted to leave the EU. The Brexit referendum outcome triggers the Irish Government’s worst nightmare as both islands’ fortunes in Europe are totally interlinked.

All 28 EU member states are in seriously uncharted waters with many questions and few ready answers.  John Downing looks at eight key issues.

1. Are the UK definitely out of the EU?

Yes. Technically this referendum is “consultative” and “non-binding.”  Political reality and the history of this most explosive topic means the result cannot be ignored. But how and when the United Kingdom exit happens will take quite some time to unfold. The Brexit terms and any new relationship with the EU will involve complex negotiations and require the agreement of the remaining 27 member states.

2. What rules guide the UK’s Brexit process?

The idea of any nation leaving the EU was only recognised in 2009 in Article 50 of the EU Lisbon Treaty. Once Article 50 is invoked a two-year negotiating timeframe is allowed.

Extension of the two-year talks term requires unanimous agreement of the remaining 27 member states. Failure to get unanimous agreement means the exit happens automatically.

3. So that puts the UK out of the EU by summer 2018?

No. Most people involved agree it will take more than two years to untangle 43 years of shared EU laws and regulations. There is also doubt about when exactly Britain will trigger the Article 50 process.

Some in the Leave campaign urged a delay on triggering until after big elections are pending in both France and Germany later next year.

4. What does the exit Article 50 say?

It gives big power to the remaining 27 member states who must agree UK Brexit terms by a so-called “super qualified majority” – that is 72pc of the member countries, representing 65pc of the EU population. The European Parliament must also approve any deal.

In practice there will a complex web of talks deciding Brexit terms and framing a new EU-UK relationship.

5. Can Ireland frame new trade and other relationships with the UK?

Not without full agreement of the rest of the EU. Ireland is fully committed to staying in the EU. Brussels and the other member governments will handle all negotiations. This is a huge challenge for Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan and his diplomatic team. Taoiseach Enda Kenny must make a very forceful case on Ireland’s key interests.

6. What about the Border and Northern Ireland generally?

Both London and Dublin will work hard to avoid any return of the Border. But the 300 mile stretch from Derry to Dundalk becomes an EU external frontier. 

There are immigration control issues raising questions about identity checks.  And if there are tariffs in new trade arrangement the question of customs controls arise.

The outcome, in which the North’s voters, opted for Remain has fuelled tensions. Sinn Fein want a poll on ending partition. The DUP say the North will be more prosperous in a UK free of the EU. Renewed calls in Scotland for a new Independence Referendum there complicates things given close links between Scotland and the North.

7. What about British politics? Is David Cameron finished as Prime Minister?

Received wisdom in the run in to Thursday’s vote was that Cameron’s days were numbered irrespective of the outcome. This has been all about internal Conservative Party wars over Europe which date back to the late 1960s. Leave campaigners in the Conservatives, including Boris Johnson, have written to Cameron urging him to stay on.

British politics is entering a very volatile period. The outcome shows a very divided Britain with a huge fault-line inside Labour also.

8. Is this the beginning of the end for the European Union?

It very well could be. Anti-EU sentiment is very high in many mainstream countries including France. There are elections in Spain on Sunday and the anti-EU parties on the right and left will be emboldened.

But the European Union was the continent’s post-1945 settlement after two horrific world wars. If the EU is to survive it must restore economic growth and prosperity and address other problems like the refugee crisis. That will not be easy and this result finds the EU already at a low ebb.

Online Editors

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