The Prime Minister's triggering of Article 50 is merely the end of the beginning, argues Dr Julie Smith

As the Prime Minister signed the letter triggering Article 50 – the "divorce clause" in the EU treaties that provides the only legal route for the UK to withdraw from the EU — we reached the end of the beginning.

For nine months the UK and the EU have been in limbo. In the days and weeks following the June 2016 referendum, those who advocated leaving the EU were quick to claim that the much-heralded economic disasters threatened by George Osborne and David Cameron in “Project Fear” had not occurred.

Unhappy Remainers were equally swift in their rebuttals, as proponents of the two camps seemed determined to replay the arguments of their respective referendum campaigns – and in some cases the arguments of more than four decades.

Certainly, while the value of sterling might have dropped and inflation begun to rise, the economic indicators are far from the nightmare scenarios invoked during the referendum.  But that scenario was based on the idea that Cameron would trigger Article 50 immediately upon a Leave vote; in practice, he left the field, and his successor delayed the fateful act.

These last nine months have thus been little more than a phoney war.  The UK has barely begun to outline its negotiating objectives, while the other 27 member states made clear they would not engage in discussions before the UK formally indicated its intention to leave the Union. That day has now come.

The nature of the UK’s future relationship with the EU remains unclear, although the Prime Minister’s construal of the vote to leave the EU as a sign of popular support for curbing immigration has led to one clear red line: that the UK will not seek to remain in the single market.

This decision is perfectly rational and logical if one accepts the Prime Minister’s premise regarding the reasons 17 million people voted to leave, since free movement of people is a prerequisite of membership of the single market.

Yet, there is good cause to believe Mrs May is misguided in her interpretation: there were myriad reasons for the leave votes, whether to reclaim sovereignty or reduce payments to the EU,  all neatly encapsulated in the beguiling phrase “take back control”.

For many of those who voted leave, immigration and free movement were not the reason to seek EU withdrawal; even many Leavers acknowledge the importance of EU nationals to the UK economy.

To base a decision to leave the single market on the premise that we shall thereby "control" immigration is only a plausible thesis if those advocating it believe that Leave voters intended to prioritise controlling immigration numbers over the security of the economy, our agriculture and our welfare services, including the NHS and care of the elderly –all of which are heavily dependent upon immigrant labour.

Nonetheless, the Prime Minister appears to have adopted an approach that endears her to the hard Brexiteers in her own party, allowing a clean break from the EU, even if a majority in the country seems to favour a closer ongoing relationship with the 27.

For a city such as Cambridge, and for the University of Cambridge especially, membership of the single market with its associated rights of free movement is self-evidently beneficial. Many academics, myself included, have benefited over the years from EU funding – but what is at least as important is the opportunity to collaborate across borders, without having to consider whether a visa is needed.

EU nationals from other countries have played a vital role as students and colleagues. Even Brexiteers who wanted to reduce immigration were broadly in favour of guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals who were already in the UK at the time of the referendum.

Alongside many of us who would have preferred the UK not to be in the EU’s departure lounge, some of those Leavers have been demanding that the Government should give a unilateral undertaking to EU nationals already in the UK. The Government has said such people, along with UK nationals resident elsewhere in the EU, will be their first priority in the negotiations.

This is laudable, although it fails to comprehend a key facet of EU negotiations: nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

The campaign to secure the rights of EU nationals will no doubt continue in the hope that some of the uncertainty engendered by the process of Brexit can be minimised, though the idea that some issues can be picked off and resolved in tranches is almost certainly fanciful.

Meanwhile, the withdrawal negotiations are likely to take the two years envisaged in the Lisbon Treaty – and that will only resolve the divorce settlement. For the longer term future arrangements with the 27, further, more protracted negotiations are likely.  Triggering Article 50 is not the end, though it would seem to herald the beginning of the end of the UK’s membership of the EU.


Dr Julie Smith is Director of the European Centre in the POLIS Department and a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. Her new book, The UK’s Journeys Into and Out of the EU: Destinations Unknown, is published by Routledge. 

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