So it begins. After the political upheaval, court battles and parliamentary rows of the last nine months, Article 50 has finally been invoked and the UK is leaving the European Union.
Just after midday, Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU, hand-delivered a letter from Theresa May to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. In accordance with Article 50 of the EU’s treaties, the letter formally notified Tusk of ‘the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union’.
Those looking for headline-grabbers in the letter will be disappointed. It is a straightforward document, with no big new demands or concessions from the UK, and few rhetorical flourishes. Indeed the letter is remarkably – and deliberately – repetitive, as if Theresa May wishes to convey she really means what she says. Hence multiple references to ‘a deep and special partnership’, ‘economic and security cooperation’, and ‘as much certainty as possible’.
The letter offers five clues about how the UK will approach the next two years of negotiation.
First, it is emollient in tone. It refers to ‘our friends across the continent’ and uses one of the Foreign Secretary’s favourite phrases to declare ‘we are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe’. It places the desire to engage ‘constructively and respectfully, in a spirit of sincere cooperation’ as the first of seven principles on which the UK wishes negotiations to proceed. The UK, wisely, does not want talks to descend into acrimony and argues the EU should feel the same way.
Second, the emphasis placed on security is striking. The economy and security are presented as two sides of the same coin. Repeatedly, the letter calls for ‘a deep and special partnership that takes in both economic and security cooperation’. The UK wants to help the EU in future in ‘defending itself from security threats’. The Prime Minister regrets that ‘failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.’ And, as if the point needed underlining any further, she argues that ‘weakening our cooperation for the prosperity and protection of our citizens would be a costly mistake’.
At the start of a negotiation previously expected to focus on the economy and trade, this is a bold play from the UK to give equal billing to defence and security. Ministers clearly believe the UK has a strong hand to play and don’t want EU negotiators to forget it.
Third, the letter underlines the importance the UK places on the simultaneous negotiation of the terms of withdrawal and the future relationship. No less than three times, the letter states ‘it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal’.
This may appear to be a technical point, but the government sees it as absolutely critical to the UK’s interests. The EU wants to settle the terms of withdrawal – specifically the ‘divorce bill’ of up to €60 billion – before discussions start on future trading relations. Yet the UK cannot feasibly sign a cheque without assurances over the future UK-EU trading relationship. If no such assurances are given by 2019 – if no basis for a trade deal is reached and UK-EU trade defaults to WTO rules – the UK will likely walk away refusing to pay anything.
Fourth, the letter states ‘we should aim to strike an early agreement’ on the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU. The priority placed on this is not surprising given recent comments from ministers but remains significant nonetheless, especially for those seeking reassurance over their right to remain as well as the businesses who employ them.
Finally, the letter proactively proposes transitional measures should be adopted. It argues ‘people and businesses in both the UK and the EU would benefit from implementation periods to adjust in a smooth and orderly way to new arrangements’. Many in the EU have continually insisted that two years is not long enough to establish a new UK-EU trading relationship. While the UK continues to claim agreement is possible in that timeframe, it is here conceding that implementation will certainly take longer.
So today has brought some additional clarity over how the coming months and years will pan out. Theresa May signs off by remarking ‘the task before us is momentous but it should not be beyond us.’ The clock is now ticking, and two years from today we will know if the Prime Minister’s ambition to leave the EU in an amicable, stable and mutually-beneficial way is possible.