Tuesday 21 November 2017

Shot fired on a tortoise race - but the result will have huge implications here

Today's papers examine the likely implications of Brexit
Today's papers examine the likely implications of Brexit
Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

Question: So Article 50 has finally been triggered. Am I waking up to any major changes today?

Answer: No. The UK remains part of the European Union for at least another two years, so there is no immediate change to its status. And the political landscape had already changed with the outcome of the referendum last June.

But it is nonetheless a momentous day. After 44 years of membership, the formal divorce is now under way, and the UK has begun the process to leave the EU.

Q: I'm fed up hearing about Brexit. When will we know what all this means and what the long-term implications will be?

A: Not for quite some time yet, I'm afraid. Get comfortable, because this is going to be a long process. As one Irish source caustically said, it's like the shot has been fired on a tortoise race.

The first significant step will be the publication tomorrow of Europe's draft negotiating guidelines.

Officials here expect these will include reference to the need to calculate the amount of money that Britain owes to the EU; the protection of the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU; and possibly something about the potential relocation of the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority from London.

Read More: Downbeat Tusk ready for 'damage control' after UK triggers Article 50

Crucially, the Government is also expecting reference to the "unique circumstances" of Ireland, especially related to the Border and Northern Ireland. It will prove whether Ireland's mammoth diplomatic drive over the last nine months has been successful.

Q: So the talks won't begin right away?

A: No. It could be well into May before talks get under way. The draft guidelines will be tweaked over the coming weeks, before being put before European leaders at a special summit on April 29 for their approval.

Then foreign ministers will drill down into them in some more detail. It's expected that by mid to late May, EU ministers will formally give European Commission Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, the green light to kick off negotiations.

Q: Michel who?

A: Michel Barnier. He's the chief negotiator on the EU side. Remember that the negotiations will not be carried out between individual EU states and the UK, but by the UK and the Commission, with the latter representing all the remaining member states, including Ireland.

Q: So Ireland has to compete with every other country in Europe to have its voice heard?

A: Yes. And that's the challenge.

The Government is confident that its interests, particularly in relation to the North and the Border, are being heard by Europe.

Read More: Podcast: Theresa May triggers Article 50 - 'Ireland must prepare for the decade of Brexit'

It will have taken comfort from the fact that Theresa May made specific reference to Ireland in the Article 50 letter, and the Taoiseach said he believes that those priorities will also be included in the draft guidelines. But there are other issues also, trade being a key one.

Q: When will Ireland be discussed in the negotiations?

A: Those specifics aren't clear yet. Irish sources believe that, from the EU perspective, the question of how much Britain should cough up to settle its EU bill should take centre stage early on, along with dealing with the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU.

But Mr Barnier noted earlier this week that Northern Ireland must also be addressed, so this issue could come up relatively early in the talks.

Q: Will the talks be completed in two years?

A: Most would agree that the two-year deadline is unrealistic. It can be extended with the agreement of all member states.

Officials believe the talks on the future relationship may not kick off until the autumn at the earliest, so it will be a long, drawn out process. Hence the need for a transitional agreement. What form that will take remains to be seen.

Irish Independent

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