Brexit: Questions to the Prime Minister

Posted on 13th July 2016

Mike Laughton looks ahead to Theresa May’s premiership.

Theresa May was appointed prime minister yesterday, nine weeks sooner than she expected.  Brexit will surely define her premiership, but she must first define Brexit.  Here are the questions the incoming prime minister will need to answer for those inside and outside the UK:

When will negotiations start?

David Cameron did not trigger Article 50 to formally start the process of leaving the EU. During her leadership campaign, May suggested Article 50 would not be triggered until 2017.

She will need to ensure that a ‘qualified majority’ of the other 27 EU member states, and the European Parliament, agree the final terms of the deal for Brexit.  Agreement needs to be among 55% of member states representing 65% of the population, and four member states representing 35% of the population must not block it.  However, governments representing 38% of the population will change by the end of 2017, notably Germany and France (33% of the EU-27).  An early 2017 triggering means that negotiating parties and priorities may change mid-way through.

This has led to calls to wait until the middle of 2017.  Waiting too long risks antagonising European partners, while going too quickly risks failure.

How will negotiations start?

Article 50 notifications must be in accordance with a country’s constitutional requirements.  In Britain, with its famously uncodified constitution, this means a legal argument about what these requirements are.  A legal challenge to prevent the government triggering Article 50 without parliament’s consent has already been launched. If it succeeds, May will have to ensure her relatively small majority in the Commons is behind her, and that the Lords – where the Conservatives do not have a majority – do not pose any problems.

Who’s negotiating?

On the UK side, May has appointed David Davis, a former Europe minister and Conservative front-bench colleague before 2008, as “Brexit minister” (or, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, officially), in the hope of satisfying Remainers and Leavers alike.  She must also hope that he commands the confidence of the UK’s devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and the London mayor, who were promised representation in the negotiations by May’s predecessor.  Overseas territories and crown dependencies will likely demand representation. The government will still need to find trade negotiators and other officials, a recruitment drive already underway. The full UK delegation will take some time to become clear: at time of writing, new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s role in negotiations is to be determined.

What are the aims of Britain’s negotiations?

May has promised to end free movement, a big factor in Britain’s debate, while attempting to maintaining a place in, or tariff-free access to, the single market.  According to most European leaders, this simply is not on offer.  On 11 July, she signalled that ending free movement would take priority over retaining single market membership, saying, “We need to get the best deal in trade, in goods and services… [but] free movement cannot continue as it has done up to now.”

However, this may not present the united view of her party, which only has a slim majority in the House of Commons. Most of the Commons, including May herself, wanted to remain in the EU. Would this majority assert itself to remain in the single market?

Will Britain really exit?

Once triggered, Article 50 automatically severs membership after two years, except with the unanimous approval of the other member states to extend this time-frame.  This has been widely understood to mean that Britain starts a countdown timer once it activates.  Evidence to parliament on this question suggests Britain could cancel its notification unilaterally as well. As such, Brexit is a decision that will need reaffirming. The cabinet she has chosen so far, with prominent Leave campaigners in high positions, suggests Brexit does mean Brexit, as she has said repeatedly.

Will there be another referendum?

A petition to re-run the 23 June referendum garnered 4 million signatures, guaranteeing a debate by MPs. The debate’s result cannot bind the government, but majority support for another would pressure the new prime minister.

It is unlikely that the demand will go away. Division among those in her party preferring tariff-free access to Europe’s market, and those who prioritise ending free movement, may well threaten a rupture. Holding another referendum might quickly become the only option to keep the party united.

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