After much uncertainty and infighting, Article 50 day is finally upon us. Yesterday was the United Kingdom’s last full day in the European Union and we begin the process of Brexit at noon today. But what does it all entail and what will it mean for us?
The referendum may have taken place last June, but the triggering of Article 50 is the official notice given by any member state that wishes to leave the EU. It will probably take the form of a letter from Theresa May to European Council president Donald Tusk, who will get back to May with a response from the other EU states within 48 hours with draft Brexit guidelines. May will also most likely make a statement in the House of Commons around the same time, which makes sense, as it’s Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons every Wednesday at midday.
What happens next?
It’s the first time any member has left since the EU was created, so nobody really knows what the process will be. The UK’s exit from the EU will have to be negotiated and approved by its 27 remaining states, which could take quite a long time, and there is no way for the UK to get back in unless it’s approved by all of those member states. Also, the UK won’t get any say in the process of leaving, but it will be given two years in the EU to negotiate new treaties. If it needs an extension, it will have to be approved by all other member states. Negotiations won’t start until after the French election in May at the very earliest, but it could be later.
On top of this, some experts believe it’ll take up to 10 years for us to “divorce” the EU. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the triggering of Article 50 is not the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning.
Can we change our minds (please)?
Despite the impassioned pleas of many politicians and public figures – including Tony Blair – for Remainers to “rise up” against Brexit, Parliament did vote for Article 50 to be triggered. However, Britain’s former ambassador to the EU, Lord Kerr, did say, “You can change your mind while the process is going on,” so it’s not certain whether we might stay after an eleventh-hour intervention.
What happens today will have huge consequences for the UK – consequences that could last for many generations to come
Will anything actually change in the UK?
On Thursday, Brexit Secretary David Davis will publish the Great Repeal Bill. This will convert European laws into British ones and is being puffed as a chance to review laws that do not currently work for Britain. Michael Gove has already been talking excitedly about slashing environmental and wildlife regulation that Britain has because of EU laws, which suggests that there could be a scrabble for some quite weighty changes.
Do the ministers at least know what's going on?
The above is, broadly, what we do know. There’s still a great deal of uncertainty and what we don’t know could fill many warehouses. Davis, a prominent Leave campaigner, admitted just a fortnight ago that he didn’t know what the consequences for the UK would be if we don’t strike a deal with the EU. On the Brexit special of Question Time on Monday night, he said there was a “huge contingency plan” if we left empty-handed, which tallies with May’s statement that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. If you were being unkind, you could say that it all looks a bit like a giant shrug.
When will we get that £350m per year that bus promised us?
Before anything happens, we'll likely feel the sting of the financial burden which comes with leaving the EU. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has said that Britain will face a bill of around £50bn (€60bn) – a lot more than that £350m we'll likely never see. Protesting the idea that the UK had obligations to pay the union, a government source told The Times earlier this month that we must: “Think of it like golf club rules. Once you leave the club, there is no obligation to keep paying." Comparing the European Union to a golf club is clearly unusual, as being a member of a golf club doesn’t include things like pensions liabilities and the expense of UK infrastructure projects that the £50bn would represent. Or, perhaps we don’t know enough about how golf clubs are run.
What about the future of the uk itself?
The future of the United Kingdom itself is also a big question mark. This week, ministers acknowledged that Northern Ireland would not need to reapply in order to be part of the EU if it voted to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is currently in a tricky position, with political parties still in deadlock over a budget agreement. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has said that if a deal has not been struck after Easter, then it will be taken back under direct rule of Westminster. Some pundits are speculating that the hard-won peace process could be unravelled by Brexit.
Meanwhile, Scottish National party leader Nicola Sturgeon has made it clear that she wants another independence referendum over the next 18 months to two years. The fact that the idea of “taking back control” was what Vote Leave won on means Sturgeon has been dealt a good hand.
This all looks very uncertain at the moment, but what happens today will have huge consequences for the UK – consequences that could last for many generations to come.