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UK aims for Brexit

In speeches in January, a White Paper in February 2017 and the Article 50 letter of notice, the UK Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Exiting the EU set out their aims for the Brexit negotiations and for the UK’s future relations with the EU after it has left. The UK would be global in all its endeavours, would cooperate with its EU neighbours and would like as frictionless a departure and as smooth a transition as possible.

EU Guidelines

The European Council published guidelines setting out a broad framework for the negotiations and the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the negotiations and the UK’s future relationship with the EU – which must not be more beneficial outside the EU than in it. The Commission adopted detailed negotiating directives, which flesh out the guidelines.

Areas of agreement and potential disagreement

The views of the EU institutions coincide with the Government’s in some respects – the need for legal certainty and for continuing security cooperation, the importance of agreeing EU and UK citizens’ rights, and settling the Ireland/Northern Ireland border question, for example. The previous Government also accepted the EU’s insistence that membership of the Single Market would entail accepting free movement of people; the UK would therefore not seek membership of either the Single Market or the EU customs union.

One or more agreements?

But there have also been areas of potential disagreement. One is whether the withdrawal agreement and an ambitious free trade agreement should be negotiated alongside each other, which is what the UK wanted. The guidelines and negotiating directives, on the other hand, provide for a phased approach to the negotiations; discussion of a future UK trade relationship with the EU will take place only if “sufficient progress” has been made in settling priorities in the first phase. The EP resolution also insists on a phased approach and that the future relationship agreement be concluded with the UK as a third state after Brexit. 

Is no deal better than a bad deal?

One noteworthy difference between the previous Government’s earlier statements and the Article 50 letter is that the notice letter does not reflect the Government’s earlier readiness to walk away from the EU with no agreement if the outcome of the negotiations is unsatisfactory. The Article 50 letter emphasised the need to avoid a no-deal scenario and a “hard Brexit”.

Has the general election changed anything?

The election on 8 June, in which the Conservatives lost their majority in the House of Commons, may yet change the Government’s negotiating position in some areas. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has said the UK will leave the EU “via a slope not a cliff-edge” – a no deal outcome must be avoided. But he also confirmed that the UK would leave the Single Market and the customs union. 

There have been suggestions that a Conservative alliance with the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionists – details of which are not yet known – might give rise to a ‘softer’ Brexit than previously envisaged.

The negotiations start

The Brexit negotiations formally opened on 19 June 2017. Both parties are committed to being transparent about the negotiations, but as yet there is more evidence of EU than UK transparency.

This paper summarises key points in the EU and UK starting positions as the Brexit negotiations begin. References to “both parties” are to the two main negotiators – the European Commission and the UK Government.

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