Theresa May’s letter of notification regarding the triggering of Article 50 was delivered to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, on 29 March. Three days later, and rather contemporaneously, the EU published the first, of what inevitably will be many, guidelines of its negotiating strategy. As well as this, the European Parliament has implemented a resolution that will give MEPs a chance to articulate their views on the conditions of the Britain’s exit from the EU.
On the surface, it would appear that both Mrs May’s letter of notification and the EU guidelines at this stage, resemble some sort of consensus. Indeed, with regards to securing the rights of citizens, both sides have acknowledged their adherence to making progress on this matter a priority. Furthermore, both parties recognise the need to ensure a contingency plan is in place for the eventuality that talks collapse, but reaffirm their commitment to securing an agreement on a future relationship.
However, despite this collection of loose agreements in print, there is a clear divergence of issues between the EU regulations and the Article 50 letter surrounding Brexit and formalities after the process, the most poignant of which relates to the prospect of a free trade deal. The Article 50 letter states: “We propose a bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. This should be of greater scope and ambition than any such agreement before it so that it covers sectors crucial to our linked economies such as financial services and network industries.” The European Council states: “It [UK] must ensure a level playing field in terms of competition and state aid and must encompass safeguards against unfair competitive advantages.”
In short, Brussels points out that the free trade agreement must not provide the benefits of the Single Market, an assertion that will upset large swathes of Eurocentric opinion. Further to this point, the European Commission also emphasises that Britain should be denied the opportunity to pursue a low-tax and low-regulation area on the European border.
Another issue that features in the EU regulations but not the letter is that of future international commitments. The European Council “expects the UK to honour its share of international commitments contracted in the context of its EU membership”. From the tenor of this statement, it is clear that Brussels does not expect Britain to abandon its commitments that were made whilst a member state. Indeed this hints of potential diplomatic and political ties in the future, something that for the Eurosceptics, is a haunting prospect.
What is clear here, is that these discrepancies highlight, foreshadow even, the potentially turbulent and unpredictable nature of the negotiation process. With time ticking for the two sides to secure a deal, it could well be the case that no-deal will be better than a bad one.