Since the British voters decided the UK should leave the EU significant uncertainties have been preventing both businesses and individuals from making long term plans. Indeed, trying to understand the withdrawal procedure, the transitional arrangements and to identify the players involved in the future withdrawal negotiations is like struggling to solve an equation with multiple unknowns.
A lot seems to have happened since the referendum, especially in the UK political landscape. Yet the withdrawal process has not advanced a single inch.
Currently, the European Council is waiting for a notification of withdrawal from the UK (Article 50 Treaty of Lisbon). When resigning, David Cameron stated that he would leave this responsibility to his successor. Therefore, presumably, no notification can be expected before September 2016, at the earliest. On the one hand, despite the visible impatience of some EU leaders, it is possible that the German federal and the French Presidential elections could delay the beginning of the Brexit talks until 2017. On the other hand, UK domestic issues might also postpone the notification date, as the role of the UK Parliament in the process is not clear yet either.
The message from the continent has been clear and consistent: no informal talks or negotiations will take place before the UK notifies its intention to withdraw from the EU. So, while the UK is figuring out who should trigger Article 50 and when the EU also needs to decide who will be sitting at the negotiation table on its behalf. The withdrawal procedure does not establish whether it should be the European Commission or the Council representing the EU. In the meantime, Didier Seeuws – chief of staff of the former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy – was appointed to run the so-called ‘Brexit task force’ which is a special Council committee. However, the European Commission, most specifically President Jean-Claude Juncker and his Cabinet, will unquestionably also have a decisive role to play in the talks.
The official declarations of both UK and EU officials are starting to reveal their future negotiation positions. A key issue in the debates is and will be the status of EEA nationals already residing in the UK and vice versa, as well as the post-Brexit free movement of citizens regime.
James Brokenshire, Minister for Immigration at the Home Office, declared in front of the House of Commons that, in the short term, there would be no consequences for these citizens: ‘We do have the certainty of knowing that there will be no immediate change, so people should not be fearful’. According to his statements, in the longer term the UK government will seek to ‘make sure that EU nationals who are already here can stay in Britain, but we also […] need to guarantee the rights of British nationals living in EU member states’.
Most certainly reciprocal arrangements will also be negotiated by EU leaders. Nevertheless, both the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker and the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, have continuously stressed that if the UK wants to maintain free access to the internal market, it must respect the four freedoms, including the free movement of citizens.
The message coming from Brussels is that there is very little room for manoeuvre for the UK government to negotiate a change in the free movement regime. However, we have seen that the only thing certain about Brexit is that there is so much uncertainty. Free movement remains a topic of much debate and Fragomen is closely monitoring the UK withdrawal process.