The tortured timeline of Brexit

Every time a bit of certainty emerges, it quickly fades again. Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposal to trigger Article 50 by 31st March next year still stands, and Brexit minister David Davis said in Strasbourg on Tuesday that negotiations were likely to kick off in May. He was meeting Guy Verhofstadt, chief Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament, who insisted that negotiations must be concluded before the European elections due in 2019 and probably to be held in May of that year. But of course Theresa May has a High Court ruling to deal with, and according to Verhofstadt Davis pretty well conceded that the Supreme Court ruling next month will confirm the ruling that Parliament must consider the terms of Brexit. So the government will have to introduce a withdrawal bill in the Commons, and some of the 400-odd MPs who backed Remain are bound to put some kind of marker down to at least influence the government’s negotiating stance in favour of transitional membership of the Single Market. They will doubtless have been encouraged that the Prime Minister is herself backing that concept. However, Verhofstadt also made it very clear that membership of the Single Market cannot be separated from the Four Freedoms: free cross-border movement of people, goods, services and capital. Manfred Weber, head of the European People’s Party, told Davis: “Free movement of people is non-negotiable.” Weber, who is said to be close to German chancellor Angela Merkel, laid it on the line after meeting Davis: “I must emphasize that Brexit means Brexit, that means leaving the EU and cutting off relations, not cherry-picking, not special relationships.” That sounds as if there may not be all that much to negotiate about, but the key player is former French foreign minister and EU Commisioner Michel Barnier who heads the Commission’s Brexit taskforce. He also met Davis but purely as a courtesy: “No negotiation without notification [Article 50],” he tweeted. Perhaps more ominously, he continued: “My work is now focused on EU27.” It was reported last month that he wants all negotiations to be done in French, which is doubtless going down a bomb in London.

Even if Article 50 is triggered in the spring and negotiations were to kick off by May, in all probability they would immediately be stalled because of the proximity of the French presidential elections. They are unlikely to start again before the summer, and when Brussels comes back from its holidays they will be heading straight into elections to the German Bundestag, so nothing major is likely until the end of 2017.

The UK doesn’t just have to negotiate a trading arrangement with the EU, but also one by one with the EU’s trading partners and there are over 50 of those.

It is possible that negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement with the EU could begin in parallel with the Brexit withdrawal negotiations, but an FTA certainly could not be concluded within two years. It would have to be ratified by all 27 members. The deal between the EU Canada which was almost brought down by the Wallonia regional assembly took nine years. Even if we could figure out when the process will start, no one can say when it will end.