Brexit: Now Comes the Hard Part

Five key challenges lie ahead.

Nearly nine months after the UK voted in a referendum to leave the EU, the British government will soon provide notice to the European Council of its intention to withdraw under Article 50 of the EU Treaty, marking the beginning of exit negotiations. As contentious as the last year has been, first in debates on the merits of Brexit leading up to the referendum, and more recently amid criticisms of the government’s negotiating priorities and strategy, the period ahead promises to be even more combative.

Being the first country to leave the EU, the UK has no pre-established path to follow, and will forge ahead knowing only that Article 50 stipulates a two-year period to negotiate and ratify an agreement on the terms of exit, unless Member States unanimously agree an extension. There are five primary challenges facing the UK that are identifiable from the outset.

Timing is Tight, and the Exit Bill Looms

Most fundamentally, the UK will not be in full control of the negotiating agenda, and specifically the order in which issues will be addressed. Prime Minister May has said that a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU is one of the government’s objectives, and that a smooth and orderly Brexit means having it in place by the end of the negotiating period. Most observers agree that two years is a short time to negotiate a free trade deal, but the actual time available to do so could prove even shorter, as some European leaders have suggested that the UK’s post-exit trade arrangements can only be negotiated once the most important terms of its exit have been agreed, which could take several months.

This may simply be an early negotiating tactic, but if less time is available, it becomes more likely a transition agreement would be needed to avoid what the prime minister has called “a disruptive cliff edge”. However, such an agreement would also take time to negotiate, and, once in place, it could reduce the urgency of reaching a final agreement, possibly drawing out negotiations well beyond two years.

The second major challenge faced by the UK will be settling the financial terms of its EU departure, or its “exit bill”, which EU leaders have indicated will be among the issues they seek to resolve up front. The main elements to be discussed will be future EU spending commitments agreed when the UK was a member state and EU officials’ pensions, and a figure of EUR60 billion has been bandied among European leaders. The amount will certainly be disputed by the UK, but it will have a strong incentive to agree to terms quickly and move on to more contentious and important issues, even though the concept of post-membership payments to the EU will be portrayed by some in the UK as an early and unnecessary concession.

Scotland and Other Internal Divisions

The three remaining challenges are domestic, and centre on Scotland, the lack of a unified national position on Brexit and the need to manage expectations.

The Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee has published a report calling for “a bespoke solution that reflects Scotland’s majority vote to remain in the single market”. It would greatly complicate both the negotiations with the EU as well as border and logistics issues if such a bespoke arrangement were in place post Brexit. The lingering risk of a second independence referendum raises the stakes in how the UK government deals with any Scottish requests, and will require policymakers’ careful attention when government resources will already be stretched.

Beyond Scotland, it has been made clear in a variety of forums that the UK is not entering Brexit negotiations with unified views of the most desirable outcomes. In considering future UK trade arrangements, for example, Parliament’s International Trade Committee recently recommended joining the European Free Trade Area, and there are sure to be a raft of other proposals put forward on this issue alone from public and private sector groups. In the midst of negotiations, open debates within the UK can expose domestic political pressure points that could be strategically exploited by the European side. It may be of some comfort that the EU will be subject to similar internal disagreements, but the upshot of this is likely to be delays in formulating negotiating positions — an unfavourable outcome for the UK.

The final UK challenge as negotiations begin is managing expectations and uncertainties. Prime Minister May promised “no running commentary”, but there will be leaks, as with any negotiation. Progress will not be linear, in the sense that the UK and EU will appear alternatively to be closer to achieving their objectives, and financial markets may react accordingly. Domestic opponents of the UK government are likely to be quick to attribute any economic underperformance or market turbulence to shortcomings in the government’s approach to negotiations. The biggest associated risk is that the balance of public opinion shifts to a decidedly more negative view of Brexit, lending support to ideas already circulating on either a greater role for Parliament in approving the final negotiated agreement or another opportunity for the electorate to formally express its view.

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