May expected to trigger article 50 in middle of next week

Difficulties Brexit poses for Ireland are likely to feature in talks guidelines EU will issue

British Prime Minister Theresa May was coy about dates in Brussels, sticking firmly to the line that she will meet her deadline of the end of March. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

British Prime Minister Theresa May was coy about dates in Brussels, sticking firmly to the line that she will meet her deadline of the end of March. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

 

European diplomats are, like the rest of us, tired of waiting for Theresa May to trigger article 50 so they can get down to the business of Britain’s departure from the EU. “It’s like the night before the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V – ‘Will it never be morning?’,” one particularly urbane diplomat told me.

They won’t have to wait for morning much longer if May, as her European partners expect, delivers her letter of notification by the middle of next week.

Unless there is an upset, she will receive parliamentary authorisation to do so on Monday or Tuesday and there is no reason for her to wait any longer. The prime minister was coy about dates when she was in Brussels, sticking firmly to the line that she will meet her deadline of the end of March.

But the EU is determined to keep the start of Brexit talks clear of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome on March 25th, making next week the ideal moment. May’s letter to other EU leaders will set out the terms she is seeking for Britain’s departure and it is likely to be based on her Lancaster House speech in January and the white paper which followed it.

These both included maintaining the common travel area among Britain’s negotiating priorities and it is likely to figure in her letter too. The Government has lobbied hard to ensure that Ireland is specifically mentioned in the guidelines for negotiations which the EU will issue within 48 hours of receiving May’s letter. EU negotiators are aware of the particular difficulties Brexit poses for Ireland and they are likely to feature in the guidelines.

Guidelines

These guidelines, a document six or seven pages long, will deal only with Britain’s divorce from the EU, and not with the shape of their future relationship. The first items on the agenda, apart from Ireland, will be the sum Britain must pay to settle its commitments, the future of some EU agencies, and “acquired rights”, the rights of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU.

EU officials acknowledge that the two years article 50 allows for is too little time to negotiate sequentially, completing the divorce agreement before moving on to the future relationship between Britain and the EU.

So the two sets of negotiations will run in parallel, although the EU may not open talks on the future relationship until some progress has been made on the divorce talks. This will come as a relief to Ireland, which fears that if the EU slaps the “bar bill” on the table at the start of the talks, Britain could walk away before they get much further.

While these negotiations are proceeding, the remaining 27 EU member states will start a reform process of their own, dominated by questions of variable geometry and a multi-speed Europe. While the Brexit talks are obviously crucial, the negotiations on Europe’s future could also have important ramifications for Ireland.

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