The European Union has stuck to its line of “no notification, no negotiation” since Britons voted to exit the bloc. It has not engaged in any formal discussions on Brexit. Now that Article 50 has been triggered, EU president Donald Tusk is calling a European Council meeting for April 29. This will bring together the leaders of the remaining 27 member states, who will adopt the EU’s overall guidelines for the Brexit negotiations.
The European Commission, which will lead the Brexit negotiations, will then be able to present more detailed and technical guidelines in the form of a draft mandate to the Council of the EU, which represents the government of each member state. Once the Council of the EU has approved this mandate, the commission will be ready to open negotiations with the UK.
That’s when the key players will begin talks. These are the people and institutions to watch as Brexit unfolds over the next two years.
The UK government has worked hard to prepare for the upcoming negotiations with the EU and for life post-Brexit. It has two completely new departments to lead the brief. The Department for Exiting the European Union (DexEU) will administer and coordinate information and technical input from all affected departments during the negotiations. The Department for International Trade is likely to take the administrative lead in the future trade negotiations between the EU and the UK, as well as in all other trade negotiations that the UK will be able to engage in once it is has exited from the EU and its customs union.
The UK’s Brexit negotiating team will be led by David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union. He will be supported by DexEU and its permanent secretary Oliver Robbins. Davis will report directly to the prime minister, who will remain closely involved in the Brexit process.
The UK Permanent Representation in Brussels is also expected to play a key role in the negotiations, not least in managing the daily contacts with the EU negotiators. This is a group of diplomatic staff based in Brussels. It is led by Tim Barrow and reports to DexEU and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Given its long experience of EU negotiations – albeit as a member of the EU rather than as its negotiating opponent – the Permanent Representation will be able to provide valuable information and expertise.
A role for the British parliament
Although it’s not legally required to consult the national parliament or the devolved administrations, the UK government has made it clear that they will be closely involved. Davis has promised that the UK parliament will be at least as well informed as the European parliament on progress. The final withdrawal agreement will also be put to a vote in both UK houses of parliament before entering into force.
Both houses are expected to monitor the negotiations closely. In particular, the newly established Exiting of the European Union Committee, under the chairmanship of Labour MP Hilary Benn, will scrutinise the work of DexEU.
The devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales will be involved through the new Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations – a forum chaired by Davis. A considerable domestic challenge for the government will be to reconcile the different interests of the devolved administrations into the UK’s negotiating position. It will be particularly difficult to square Scotland’s interest in keeping the UK in the single market with the government’s rejection of this idea.
On the other side of the table from Davis will be the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. This French politician has held ministerial posts in the French cabinet, the European parliament and the European Commission. With his long experience of politics and negotiations, and his close connections in both Brussels and the member states, he is likely to be an effective but tough negotiator, whose main priority will be the unity and interests of the EU-27.
Barnier, who will report directly to Tusk, will be supported by the so-called Article 50 taskforce, set up specifically to prepare and conduct the negotiations with the UK. This team is made up of officials from across the commission’s services, including the German trade expert Sabine Weyand as the deputy chief negotiator. It reflects the technical and legal expertise of the commission.
Throughout the Brexit talks Barnier will have to report back to, and consult with, both the Council of the EU and the European parliament.
Although the exact details of the working relationship between the commission and the Council of the EU will be set out in the negotiating mandate, Didier Seeuws, a Belgian civil servant and diplomat, has already been appointed to lead a special council committee, or taskforce, on Brexit. This brings together representatives of the member states and will coordinate the different national interests into a common position. It will oversee the work of Barnier and his team during the negotiations with the UK, making sure member state interests are fully represented.
Barnier will also report to the member states at ministerial level. Most of the Brexit discussions in the Council of the EU will take place in the General Affairs Council, consisting of Europe ministers from across the 27 member states. Even if the UK will remain a full member of the EU until the entry into force of the Brexit agreement, it will not participate in any council discussions on its exit from the EU.
Given the importance of the Brexit negotiations, the member states in the Council of the EU, which in the end have to ratify the withdrawal agreement by qualified majority, are likely to pay close attention to every move of Barnier and his team.
The European parliament
The European parliament is also expected to play a significant role in the negotiations. Although it does not have a role in setting the guidelines for the negotiations, it does have to give its consent to the final withdrawal agreement by a majority vote. That effectively provides it with a veto over the final agreement.
MEP Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, has been appointed as the Parliamentary negotiator for Brexit. He will coordinate and prepare the position of the parliament in cooperation with its president, Antonio Tajani, and the political group leaders, as well as keeping MEPs informed about progress in the negotiations with the UK.