Negotiating timeline: threats and options for extension

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What is the current timeline?

Brexit negotiations began on the 19 June. Under Article 50, the UK and EU have until the 29 March 2019 (two years from the notification of withdrawal) to agree the terms of the UK’s exit. Any ‘withdrawal deal’ should also take into account the UK’s future relationship with the EU, although the EU argues that a new relationship cannot enter into force until withdrawal is formally complete.

What needs to happen and when?

The UK has not published a detailed timetable for the talks, but the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has put forward the approach preferred by Brussels.

EU's proposed negotiating timeline for Brexit

The EU proposes four to six months of talks on the withdrawal deal. Once “sufficient progress” has been made, the EU Commission will recommend the start of talks on the future UK-EU relationship. However, Barnier recently warned that talks on the future relationship could be pushed back until December because of a lack of progress on the withdrawal deal issues such as the EU divorce bill

The withdrawal deal should be concluded by October 2018 to ensure ratification can take place by March 2019. The EU proposes that technical talks on the future relationship continue past March 2019, conducted as part of a three-year transition – or implementation – period up to 2022.

How much time have we lost as a result of the election?

Government business was restricted from the 22 April for six weeks due to ‘purdah’. While internal work on Brexit continued, there could be no formal talks with the European Union. The EU argues that it would have been prepared to start negotiating on the 22 May, suggesting the election has delayed talks by about a month.

What are the big threats to the timeline?

Aside from the obvious threat of an impasse in withdrawal talks, there are a number of domestic issues which could trip up negotiations. 

With the Prime Minister failing to gain a mandate, a minority Conservative Government increases the risk of further delays to the Brexit negotiating timetable. Not only does a minority government make delivering the Brexit legislative programme harder, it also adds uncertainty into the timeline.

There is speculation that another election could be called in the next two years and/or a leadership election for the Conservative Party.

Another general election

The recent election campaign lasted seven and a half weeks, but a second election could be done more quickly. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act states that Parliament should be dissolved 25 working days before an election, meaning it’s possible to hold an election with a minimum of five weeks’ notice. This would be more like six weeks to allow time for any “wash up” of outstanding legislation. A second election could therefore take a month and a half out of the negotiating cycle.

Conservative leadership election

The length of a leadership contest, and its possible impact on the negotiating timeline, depends on the number of candidates and if it goes to a membership vote. In 2003, the Conservative Party rallied around a single candidate, Michael Howard, avoiding a prolonged contest and replacing the leader in just over a week. The leadership election in 2016 lasted around three weeks before Andrea Leadsom withdrew, leaving only Theresa May and no need for a membership vote. In 2005, the leadership contest ran the full course and lasted two months.

What if we run out of time?

If the UK and EU fail to reach an agreement on the withdrawal deal by March 2019, they can decide to continue talks and extend the two-year period. It would, however, require both sides to want to continue talks; for the EU, that would mean agreement by all 27 member states. It is not possible for the UK to unilaterally extend the two-year Article 50 period.

If a withdrawal agreement is reached and ratified by March 2019, it could include provisions for a transitional period, or implementation phase, which would extend the negotiating period for the future relationship. It would provide time for negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship to continue before substantive change in the UK’s status takes place.

The nature of any transition provision or extension is unclear. As no-one has triggered Article 50 and exited the EU before, there is no precedent for how timelines can be extended or how they will adapt if the UK’s Prime Minister changes.