2017: the year Brexit began

British politics is rarely an uneventful world, but the recent history of the UK has thrown up repeated surprises, none more so than the 2016 Brexit vote. With the resignation of Cameron and the election of May, 2017 was always going to be dominated by the enacting of Article 50 and the negotiations over Britain’s exit from the EU.

During the European referendum, several politicians from the Leave campaign argued that the negotiations would be relatively easy. Many refuted these claims, both from the Remain camp and more independent figures representing financial institutions, such as Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England.

If any observer were in doubt as to the difficulty and animosity which these negotiations would generate, then the arguments surrounding the triggering of Article 50 certainly left no-one in doubt.

At the beginning of 2017, the triggering of Article 50 loomed into view. Some from the Leave campaign had argued that the notice to leave the EU should have been issued immediately after the referendum, but cooler heads argued that time would be needed to organise the beginning of negotiations, and that the two year time limit for negotiations would be slightly easier to deal with after a period of planning.

The selected date of 29 March 2017 was announced by the May government, and almost immediately, there were difficulties. Gina Miller began a High Court action arguing that the government did not have the right to trigger article 50 without a Parliamentary vote to support such action. Despite the best attempts of the May government, the court agreed with Gina Miller that a Parliamentary vote was required, bringing the 29 March deadline into doubt.

While Miller received a huge amount of personal abuse for her actions, including rape and death threats, she argued that the British Parliament was the only body able to authorise a material loss of rights for the public. Not even a Prime Minister had that right, and Miller was supported in this position by many on the Remain side keen to see a Parliamentary debate on the issue.

However, as predicted, the debate itself was lively but the vote was never really in doubt: Ken Clarke was the only Conservative MP to rebel against his party, with 52 Labour MPs also defying their party whip and voting against the triggering of Article 50.

In the light of the vote, and the forthcoming battles which were to come in Parliament, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that it was at this point that May changed her mind regarding a general election. Since becoming Conservative Party leader (and thus Prime Minister) in July 2016, she had repeatedly stated there would be no new general election, and so it was quite a shock when May announced that there would be one in June 2017.

The expectation was that May would increase her slim majority, giving her more authority and a larger safety net when Parliament was again asked to vote on the UK exit arrangements. The reality was rather different. May lost her majority, leaving her with very few options. The Liberal Democrats had already ruled out a coalition deal, meaning that a deal would need to be made with another party.

The Labour Party, while performing better than expected, were still a long way short of victory, meaning the Conservatives were in a dominant position when making deals, and they turned to the Democratic Unionist Party. The resulting confidence-and-supply deal gave the Conservatives a working majority in the Commons, but would cost the UK £1billion in extra investment in Northern Ireland.

In the midst of these domestic difficulties and political wrangles, the negotiations between the UK and the EU began. The teams were headed by Michel Barnier (for the EU) and David Davis (for the UK), and the talks were as difficult and protracted as had been expected.

The UK were keen to combine negotiations over a ‘divorce bill’ (the amount of money which would be needed to cover the UK’s liabilities and pay for their exit from the EU) at the same time as discussing the all important trade deal, meaning the two would be linked together in negotiations. The divorce bill amount would be dependent on the trade deal reached.

The EU had a very different approach. They demanded that the discussions on the ‘divorce bill’, the Northern Irish border and the question of the rights of EU citizens living in the UK (and vice versa) were to be concluded before any discussions on the trade deal could begin.

The position of the EU negotiators remained unchanged over the numerous rounds of debate, with the EU team refusing to begin trade negotiations until the divorce bill was finalised. Despite a dogged approach by the British negotiating team, the EU team refused to engage with trade discussions and the negotiations became a game of nerve.

The game could not continue indefinitely: one side would have to prevail, and the winner would be the side with least to lose. In this case, the winner was the EU negotiators who insisted that the divorce bill and associated issues were resolved before trade negotiations would begin. The divorce deal was agreed in December 2017, with trade negotiations due to begin in early 2018.

As 2018 begins, David Davis finds his own position as the UK’s chief negotiator in doubt, with rumours circling over his possible replacement by Boris Johnson, after making several gaffs at the Foreign Office. The trade negotiations are due to begin imminently – talks which will inevitably be fraught, difficult and long-winded.

Many EU negotiations run even past the final deadline, and it seems likely that these negotiations also will, with both the EU and the UK agreeing that a transition period will now be necessary from 2019 until 2021.

The next 12 months will be filled with reports from the negotiations, outlining the difficulties each side is facing and inevitably highlighting the bitter divisions which still exist in the UK between Remainers and Leavers. The path out of the EU for the UK is likely to be bumpy and extremely difficult, with many battles to be fought along the way. The negotiations in 2017 were just the first of those battles and the UK public will hear many rumours in the next 12 months from the negotiating table.

The fate of the May government, and the financial future of the UK rely on a successful outcome, but the EU position is not without risk either, so both sides will fight for the best deal they can.

By Dr Victoria Honeyman, Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Leeds. Her primary specialism is British Politics, with a particular specialism in British foreign policy. She is also Chair of the BISA Foreign Policy Working Group. 

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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