Last week, on March 29, the British government triggered Article 50, starting the formal process for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. The formal separation, as the majority of the people of this country voted to do on June 23 last year, has begun.
So what happens next? There will be tortuous negotiations, which could stretch over many years, to disentangle ourselves from the European Union. This will not be a quickie divorce. The formal process of Article 50 triggers a two-year deadline. By that point in March 2019 we will have left the European Union, but that will in all likelihood mean that there might be an exit bill for Britain to pay. I think this will be extraordinarily controversial and difficult for the Government to achieve, because the British public will be in no mood to pay anything to leave, and the European Union will be equally determined to secure as much as possible to prevent others from leaving. In addition, there will probably be a transition arrangement in place, which will mark out how the negotiations will progress in the years to come.
It is also extremely unclear just what the other members of the European Union will want to do in terms of the Brexit negotiations and the aftermath. National and regional parliaments across Europe have a much more direct say in the Brexit and subsequent deal than our own Houses of Parliament will have, rather ironically. In October, the region of Wallonia in Belgium (I hadn’t heard of it either) nearly destroyed the trade deal between the European Union and Canada, which show the power they can possibly wield.
Only this week, concern regarding the pressure that Spain will exert over a final trade deal unless the issue with Gibraltar is revisited, has been much in the news. Michael Howard, the former leader of the Conservative Party, irresponsible comments at the weekend regarding the possibility of a war with Spain on this issue were some of the most ludicrous claims I’ve heard a supposedly-credible politician make for a long time. The issue has already been resolved, and has been been so for a while. Gibraltar is British, and no negotiations in the Brexit talks will alter that fact.
As Britain aims to leave one union, the Prime Minister tries to hold onto another union. The triggering of Article 50 has prompted a letter from Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, to ask the UK Government and Parliament to approve a second referendum for independence for Scotland. The First Minister states that since the original referendum two and a half years ago, there has been a material change in circumstances. Since Scotland voted to stay in the EU by some considerable margin, the First Minister states that that should constitute the basis for a second referendum.
Some people might say that is not a bad thing- let them go off on their way. I think that would be a real shame and the end of one of the most successful unions amongst nations that the world has seen. I support the notion of a United Kingdom and think we would all be a bit poorer were this to come to an end. Brexit could also potentially put the Irish border in question; given that the boundary between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will be the only land border the UK has with the EU. There is therefore a real risk not just to the relationship between our country and our main trading partners, but with something intrinsically British – the survival of the United Kingdom.
This all suggests that despite history being made last week, and a different direction for our country taking shape, there remains a significant amount of work to do to clarify what Brexit actually means in reality.