British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday formally notified European Council President Donald Tusk that her government would trigger Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty.
If the main topics to resolve are agreed to be the future of trade ties, rights of citizens and the outstanding debts from the UK’s previous commitments to the EU, friction is already clear in the different negotiation strategies.
“The British want to get straight into the nitty-gritty of citizens’ rights and the future relationship between the two,” says Simon Tilford, deputy director of the London-based Centre for European Reform.
“Obviously they understand they need to negotiate the divorce settlement alongside that but they want to be doing it simultaneously.
“The EU, not so much. They want to talk about money, they might then talk about citizens’ rights but only when they have an agreement on all of the outstanding things to do with the divorce will they get serious talking about the future deal.”
Brexit bill cannot be ignored
Brussels has suggested the UK owes up to 60 billion euros for previous commitments to the EU, although Britain says the figure is far too high.
This at least shows the political dimension of calculating the bill but also a potential starting point for resolving a key issue.
“I think the very first thing we need to decide is whether this is actually a divorce or whether it is a club membership that is simply withdrawn,” says Maria Demertzis, deputy director of the Bruegel think tank in Brussels.
“In a typical divorce, you split your assets and you split your liabilities but, if the relationship between a country and the EU is considered as a membership of a club, the moment you leave the club, you have no claim on the assets,” she points out.
“It’s not clear what the relationship between the EU as an institution and every single country is in this respect.”
The difficulty for Britain is that, in any case, Article 50 starts the clock ticking in a negotiation in which it has the most to lose and in which it cannot avoid the payment issue for long.
“It’s going to have to pay, so it’s a question of how much it pays and how the British government can spin those payments,” says Tilford, adding that any payment May announces would put her in hot water at home.
“Politically in the UK, that would be toxic. But at the same time, if it doesn’t pay, the EU will resist or refuse to move on to the much more important negotiations for Britain over the future trading relationship.”
Scotland, Northern Ireland add to confusion
Complicating matters for the British government, Brexit has sent Scotland looking for a new independence referendum and raised the question of Northern Ireland’s border with Ireland, which becomes Britain’s only land border with the EU.
“I’ve seen the border wither away as a practical phenomenon in my lifetime,” says Nicholas Whyte, a former politician in Northern Ireland and now a consultant with APCO Worldwide in Brussels.
“Now, we’re in a situation where it may be restored and this is going to upset a lot of people,” he remarks. “And we face a situation where Scotland is being taken out of a European Union that it voted to stay in.”
While Whyte does not believe either Scotland or Northern Ireland are on the verge of major constitutional changes, he fears May’s administration does not fully appreciate the complexity it is faced with.
“I do think that how Theresa May and the Conservative government handle this situation is going to have dramatic medium-term effects on the United Kingdom,” he says.
“The more it looks like a process that is driven only by Conservatives, only in their own interest or the interest of London or of England, the more difficult it’s going to be to sell that at as a process that’s good for the UK as a whole.”