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March 21 2017

As news emerges that Theresa May plans to trigger Article 50 on March 29, it is time to look ahead to what’s going to happen next.

Since June 2016, after our historic vote to quit the European Union, much talk has revolved around the formal means of our break from the bloc: Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which governs the process of withdrawal.

But the mechanism doesn’t produce an immediate exit from the EU, nor does it clearly lay out the process that will take place as our negotiation is hashed out. Notice of withdrawal under Article 50 has never been given before and the experience will be new to all involved. But we are not entering into total darkness. Here is what we do know.

No immediate change

Triggering Article 50 of the European Union will not immediately alter our relationship with the EU. Brits will remain European citizens and they will still be able to travel across Europe freely. The country will retain its obligations as a member of the European Union, including contributions to the EU’s bloated budget, as well as representation in the farcical European parliament. But we will be excluded, naturally, from EU business as it pertains to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Before negotiations

What Article 50 will trigger is a lengthy negotiation period during which Britain and the European Union will come to a divorce settlement and begin to negotiate their future relationship. The first part of the process could involve discussions about continued British involvement in ongoing EU projects, or Britain’s claim to a share of sizable EU assets.

The President of the European Council Donald Tusk has stressed that the ball is in Theresa May’s court to trigger Article 50 negotiations and that the European institutions are prepared to respond to notice within 48 hours.

But the response will be thin, EU leaders will convene on 29 April to formulate the negotiating position of Michel Barnier, the chief negotiator for the European Council and a man who has already hinted at several demands he wishes to make.

Earlier this year, Barnier insisted that the UK would pay a bill of more than £50bn towards projects that have already been signed off, but he has recently backed down to ask merely for a broad agreement on a financial settlement. Ministers in the government are now pushing back at the apparent willingness of Chancellor Philip Hammond to cave into the threats and cap the cost of any divorce bill at £3bn – itself an outrageous sum.

The April 29th date will be confusing to many, coming as it does between the first and second rounds of the hotly contested French presidential election. The much-maligned Francois Hollande will presumably participate on behalf of France despite the country being mere days away from electing a new leader, most likely, Eurosceptic Marine Le Pen or establishment crony Emmanuel Macron. There may be some unappealing aspects to the history of Le Pen’s Front National, but the UK will benefit hugely from a big player on the other side of the negotiating table actively working to undermine the EU.

Once the initial guidelines have been handed down to Barnier, a further delay will occur as European leaders hand down more specific directives to govern the negotiation, which will not be widely publicised. This will push negotiations back to June, when talks between parties can truly begin.

18-month timetable

Despite Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty allowing two years for negotiation, European leaders hope to conclude talks within 18 months so the eventual deal has sufficient time to meet with the agreement of the European Parliament and the British Parliament. Michel Barnier wants talks concluded by October 2018 – a deadline that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson appears to endorse. Contrary to popular belief, the eventual does not require the unanimous approval of the EU’s exhaustive national and regional parliaments, only a qualified majority of Member States need to approve it.

Despite rejecting a Lords amendment calling for a “meaningful vote” on the government’s eventual Brexit deal, Brexit Secretary David Davis has branded the idea that MPs will not receive a vote on the deal “inconceivable” – leading many to suspect that MPs will be given a symbolic opportunity to assent to the deal.

But the content of the negotiations is still a matter of fierce debate as Barnier insists that divorce talks will precede attempts to forge a trade pact between an independent United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union. British ministers insist that talks go ahead side-by-side. Time will tell who wins the battle of wills.