Let the Talks Begin
Just as the Olympics open with the ritual words "let the Games begin...", so too the Brexit talks begin in Brussels today. The EU side is led by Michel Barnier who is the European Commisson's Chief Negotiator and an experienced EU Commissioner. The UK side is led by David Davis who is Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and was tipped yesterday as the next leader of the Conservative Party. Both have teams of negotiators and Sherpas (led on the EU side by Sabine Weyand and on the UK side by Olly Robbins) to deliver one of the biggest break-away deals in history.
In reality, however, there is not just one set of talks underway, there are at least four other related sets of discussions.
Apart from the EU-Brexit negotiations, discussions are now commencing in earnest between Emmanuel Macron's France and Angela Merkel's Germany over the new bigger, better, stronger Europe after the new French leader won a majority in the French Parliamentary elections yesterday. They are aiming for, what might be termed, "a strong and stable" Europe. The Franco-German plans are ambitious and business leaders should watch them carefully as they could have profound implications for trade in terms of deregulation and the economy generally. If Irish trade becomes even more centred on the Continent than on the UK, it will pay dividends for Irish business leaders to be better briefed on Berlin and not just watching Westminster.
There are signs of more open talks and discussions in the UK on the nature of the ideal Brexit. Since the Referendum last year, the Remainers almost took a vow of silence but the outcome of the UK General Election has spurred greater discussion and there is now real talk of a desire to have a "softer Brexit". The tone, rhetoric and content have changed somewhat since the "outcome" of the UK election. That discussion might even swing towards remaining.
In the third set of talks underway, the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, is meeting her new Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, today for talks in London. Brexit will be part of those talks too.
There are also signs of more intensive discussion among businesses about the implications of Brexit now that the phoney war is over and talks are beginning - but expect more phoney wars and more drama now that the talks have begun! Ireland's Irish Business and Employers' Confederation has advocated eloquently the need for support for businesses in Ireland. Equally, five UK business organisations (namely, the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, the British Chambers of Commerce, the EEF and the Federation of Small Businesses) have called on the UK Government to take a more business-centred approach to the Brexit negotiations and even suggested that the Single Market might remain in place until a trade deal is negotiated.
So the Brussels-based Brexit talks are not the "only show in town" but they will be the main show.
There is limited time to hold these talks; the UK's accession talks to join a much simpler European Communities took 12 years, there is now less than two years (if the original timetable is maintained) to negotiate leaving a much more complicated and involved European Union. But, in due course, this two-year timeline can be (and should be) extended but now is not the time to extend the timeframe - EU negotiations are like comedy, timing is all important.
There is no precedent for exit negotiations of this type so everyone will have to show imagination and ingenuity.
The negotiations will involve journalists and commentators deploying every cliche "in the book" including "nothing is agreed until it is all agreed", "crunch talks" and so on.
The outcome is unclear but it is very likely that it will lead to a new treaty - usually, a new treaty is needed to amend an existing treaty - and that is where it could become really interesting because such a treaty will have to be ratified by various parliaments and peoples across the EU and who could, after the outcomes of votes during the last twelve months alone, take approval of any outcome as a foregone conclusion?
Whatever is the result, the outcome should not be a "cliff" or a "light switch moment" but rather the beginning of.a step of stairs so that countries, citizens, consumers and commerce can get used to the cataclysmic change caused by Brexit.
For more information, contact Dr Vincent J G Power, Partner in EU Law, A&L Goodbody.
Date published: 19 June 2017