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Expert comment: Theresa May announces Article 50 letter

0119 Prof Bill Jones Tuesday 21 March 2017

Bill Jones, former Professor of Politics and History at Liverpool Hope University, reacts to the announcement that Article 50 will be triggered on Wednesday 29th March.

There were many who doubted this moment would actually arrive but now it just has. After the litany of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, legal appeals and an enabling bill to give Theresa May the legal authority, the key moment of triggering Britain’s separation from the EU is nigh. The letter applying for Article 50 will be sent by May next Wednesday - 29th March. Two years later, in March 2019, we will be out.

Nothing can now prevent an outcome that 48 per cent of the population opposed, either slightly, or in many cases, really passionately. At the same time as announcing this decision, her spokesperson also scotched the idea of a snap general election, stating ‘it’s not going to happen’. That should provide some relief to the Labour Party at least.

But commentators can’t be wrong when they say that May, this slightly austere, and exceptionally cautious vicar’s daughter, has embarked on a gamble with her country’s future so huge and arguably so reckless it cannot in any way be expressed in financial terms. Her choice to pursue a ‘hard’ rather than ‘soft’ version of leaving - exiting not only the single market of 500 million people, but also the Customs Union, which keeps tariffs low and trade flowing to all points of this massive economic area – as well as seeking to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Huge amounts of energy have been expended arguing whether these decisions will open up a new, exciting and enriching freedom to trade worldwide or leave the UK greatly impoverished and on its own. It will have abandoned an experiment in economic and political integration, which has been the most successful the world has ever seen. And into the bargain, May might well find that the historic decision will lead to the smashing of the historic union of four nations, as Nicola Sturgeon uses Brexit to ramp up yet more support for a Scottish independence referendum that she will probably win this time.

The EU have already made clear they are ‘ready and waiting’ to begin the most complex series of negotiations that have ever been pursued in the history of the world. The aim will be to produce a draft deal, which will be put to the 27 members of the European Council. It will then require the approval of at least 20 countries comprising 65 per cent of the EU’s population, before seeking the approval of the European Parliament.

Many believe two years will be insufficient to complete the deal - the recent trade deal between the EU and Canada, a much simpler affair, took over seven  years - and some estimate Brexit will take up to ten. An extension to negotiations after two years can take place, but only if all 27 countries agree, and with their national and in some cases regional parliaments also having a veto, a green light for this is by no means assured. Finally, if no agreement to extend talks is made, then EU treaties will cease to apply to the UK. We’ll be on our own without the trade deals that have brought us relative prosperity since we joined in 1972.

The cheery optimism of the Leave camp that EU countries, keen to continue trade with a major trade partner, now looks a little ragged. It’s obvious EU leaders are desperate to keep the EU project up and running, and have no intention of allowing the UK to escape without significant harm from the quandary into which the Brexit vote has placed them. To do so, would be to encourage other members to surrender to populist pressure and also apply for that famous Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. They have no intention of allowing the UK to emerge strengthened whilst they suffer a weakening. 

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