By Ben Fox │EUobserver│02.02.2017
Eurosceptic MPs were in celebratory mood on Wednesday (1 February). Their vote to trigger Article 50 and formally start the process of leaving the EU marks a line in the sand.
Foreign minister Boris Johnson, who led the successful Leave campaign last June, described the vote as “an absolutely momentous thing”. Brexit is now a legal reality.
The European Union bill was forced on the government by the Supreme Court ruling on the case brought by London-financier Gina Miller that Theresa May cannot launch divorce proceedings with the EU without the approval of MPs. But it proved to be no more than a temporary annoyance.
Triggering Article 50 was backed by 498 to 114 deputies, with the Scottish National Party and 33 Labour rebels forming the bulk of the dissenting votes.
The size of the majority was no surprise. With Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ordering his party’s MPs to accept the referendum result by not blocking the Article 50 bill, the government never had to worry about having the votes.
So, what happens next?
The government will now publish a long awaited White Paper on Thursday, purportedly to set out its negotiating strategy.
The White Paper won’t be heavy on substance – but it doesn’t need to be. In essence, the British position is to get as much single market access as possible while paying as little as possible for the privilege.
For the May government, migration control is non-negotiable. There does not appear to be much to actually negotiate.
One of the most interesting section of the White Paper will be how it seeks to avert the risk of a cliff edge effect of a hard Brexit.
The demand for a transitional arrangement, probably on a sector-by-sector basis, has grown in recent weeks, as it becomes increasingly clear that Britain leaving the EU’s single market and customs union is inevitable. Businesses are now edging away from demanding passporting rights that would allow them to offer their services across the EU.
Theresa May will then send a letter to European Council president Donald Tusk informing him of Britain’s intention to invoke Article 50 of the treaty.
Former finance minister George Osborne, sacked by May having led the Remain campaign with David Cameron, warned that the divorce would be “bitter” and that neither the UK or EU position would be motivated primarily by economic self-interest.
“The government has chosen – and I respect this decision – not to make the economy the priority,” he said.
For his part, Ivan Rogers, who resigned as the UK’s EU ambassador in January, warned MPs on the European Scrutiny Committee on Wednesday, that the EU-27 were likely to demand €40 billion to €60 billion in a settlement.
It is unclear whether the Brexit process could, theoretically, still be halted.
The UK Parliament’s Exiting the EU committee has demanded a meaningful vote on the negotiations before the whole process is over and in time to send back May’s team with a different negotiating brief. For her part, May has so far conceded that MPs will be given a take it or leave it vote on the final deal. If they reject it, the UK will still leave the EU.
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, whose party is the only one campaigning to prevent Brexit, has insisted that the UK could still change its mind and remain in the EU “if there is the political will”.
A crowdfunded legal challenge in Ireland to determine whether Brexit can be reversed once Article 50 has been triggered has begun.
A separate case has also been brought in London to see whether leaving the EU means Britain automatically leaves the European Economic Area (EEA) which allows access to the single market and free movement of goods, capital, services and people.
In legal terms, in other words, there are still plenty of grey areas. Hardly surprising since Brexit is – for all parties involved – a leap into the unknown.
Wednesday’s vote set the ball rolling – not necessarily on negotiations, since the EU will decide how and when these take place – but towards an end date.
The UK is in charge of its destiny, but not on the terms of its departure.
If, as appears increasingly likely, the two years fail to deliver a successor trade agreement between the EU and UK, then the treaty is clear that the UK’s 44 year marriage to the EU will still come to an end.
Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.