And so it begins…
After the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 finally received the Royal Assent on 16th March 2017, the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union commenced just two weeks later with the delivery of a letter from the Prime Minister Theresa May to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk formally notifying the UK’s intention to leave the EU, thus triggering the Brexit process.
So what happens next?
Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty clearly states that the withdrawal process will be completed within two years, “unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.” As it is unlikely that all 27 member states will agree to an extension it can be assumed that by 29th March 2019 the UK will no longer be an EU member state. However negotiations will need to be completed in advance of this date to enable legislation to pass to ratify any agreement between the UK and the EU. Indeed Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s Chief Negotiator for Brexit, has estimated that negotiations must be completed within 18 months to enable this to happen.
Of course this presents an enormous challenge to the UK government. It is far from certain that a deal with the EU will have been completed within such a short timeframe, leaving the UK facing a “cliff edge” scenario, whereby EU treaties cease to apply without a new relationship being agreed. Indeed, The Exiting the European Union Committee’s recent White Paper notes that “There is no precedent for the conclusion of a major, comprehensive bilateral or multilateral FTA covering goods and services within two years …It is not yet evident….that the two-year timetable for achieving this is realistic.”.
To counter this, the Government has announced a Great Repeal Bill which will “ensure that, wherever possible, the same rules and laws apply on the day after we leave the EU as before.” However, a report published by the Institute for Government and The UK in a Changing Europe, “The Civil Service after Article 50”,clearly identifies that “some post-Brexit policies will need to be implemented before the UK exits the EU, to prevent a ‘cliff edge’ scenario where, for example, there are no arrangements for EU goods or citizens to enter the UK.”. This will include “new legislation, new technology to be developed and new infrastructure to be built.”
But what does this mean in practise?
Theresa May was clear in her speech at Lancaster House in January that
“Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe. And that is what we will deliver.”
Sounds straightforward enough, however the Exiting the EU Committee White Paper warned that “The UK’s own new arrangements for migration from the EU will need to be flexible enough to meet the needs of the economy across the UK”. A report by the Office of National Statistics further outlines the reliance of the UK service industry on EU workers.
So while Brexit campaigners Leave Means Leave may demand a cap on EU migration it’s far from clear that this will happen, at least in the short term. Indeed, Theresa May had changed her tune somewhat during her recent trip to Saudi Arabia when she indicated there free movement could continue post –Brexit “when businesses and governments are adjusting systems and so forth, depending on the nature of the deal, a period of time during which that deal will be implemented.”.
It’s therefore unclear whether free movement will continue during this implementation period, or whether the UK intends to bring into play a permit system to ensure that sectors reliant on EU workers do not face a sudden shortfall in their workforce. But as “The Civil Service after Article 50” report points out “While the Government has indicated that it will pursue an ‘implementation phase’ to allow the UK to adjust to life outside of the EU with minimal disruption, there is no guarantee that the EU will agree to this.”
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