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FAQ: The Brexit negotiations

Barbara Wesel
May 22, 2017

EU ministers have given Michel Barnier the mandate to start Brexit negotiations. Talks are to begin in mid-June, after the UK’s general election. Citizens' rights are the first item up for discussion.

EU-Brexit-Verhandlungen PK Michel Barnier
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Thys

"It was their choice" to leave the EU, said chief negotiator Michel Barnier, commenting on Britain's position going into the divorce proceedings. Now, he says, it's up to the EU to ensure that Brexit happens in an orderly fashion. After an intense preparation phase, he and his team are ready.

"In the next few days, we will firm up the EU's negotiating positions, and announce further details," Barnier said. He has acknowledged that the Brexit negotiations are a big project, and that he expects there to be some difficulties and points of contention. The talks are set to begin the week of June 19, a few days before a summer gathering of EU government leaders. They have to be concluded by the end of March 2019, unless there is an agreement on an extension period.

Großbritannien Polnische Einwanderer streiken in London
Polish citizens will be particularly affected by BrexitImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Arriz

What is the first item up for discussion?

"Citizens' rights come first," says Michel Barnier. Many people will be directly affected by Brexit, and they need certainty in order to make decisions to do with their careers and their families. This will affect around 3 million EU citizens who live and work in the UK, as well as around a million UK citizens on the continent. These numbers are speculative, however. The UK does not require citizens to register, and not all British people living abroad in the EU are registered where they live. The EU wants these citizens to retain all the rights they have now: The right to residency, access to the labor market, as well as health and social insurance. But this could be contentious, as the UK has signaled that it intends to use this issue as an ace in the poker game, impose limits on rights, or introduce at least a deadline.

The Brexit bill

Gelber Aktenordner mit der Aufschrift Rechnungen
Before the future can be discussed, the EU wants to address Britain's exit billImage: picture-alliance/Klaus Ohlenschläger

According to Barnier, anyone who wants out of the organization has to settle their account. But it's still not clear how much the EU is actually demanding. Rumors have been placing the figure at between 40 and 100 billion euros ($45-112 billion). The bill includes outstanding payments for the current EU budget, as well as long-term duties to which the UK is still a party. Other items include pensions for EU civil servants and loans. The UK is calculating its own bill, though, demanding among other things, billions from deposits to the European Investment Bank. The Brexit bill is a hot button issue that's being played up by more than just the British tabloid press.

Who controls the negotiations?

The General Affairs Council (GAC) in Brussels will oversee the Brexit talks. In the past, the body has acted mainly as a forum to lay the groundwork for EU leaders' summits. Its new role will see the GAC grow in significance. European heads of government will not be able to continuously keep abreast of the details of the talks, so it will be up to the GAC to ensure that they progress as planned. When it comes to points of contention, the council will also have to determine whether sufficient progress has been made to warrant moving on to the next negotiation issue. However, EU leaders will be responsible for making the key political decisions.

Belgien neues EU-Ratsgebäude in Brüssel
The EU's new headquarters in Brussels is home to Brexit talksImage: DW/B. Riegert

The timeline

The first negotiation phase - EU citizens' rights and the exit bill - should be wrapped up by this coming December, The shape of future bilateral relations will be on the agenda by early next year, and the transitional agreements for access to the internal market will have to be agreed to by fall 2018. Ratification from the remaining 27 EU member states is expected to take up most of the final half-year of the negotiation process.

Most agree this timeline is very ambitious, and the two-year deadline could be extended if all parties agree to it. However, the limited timeframe set up by the EU puts pressure on Britain during negotiations. 

Who will be at the negotiating table?

Michel Barnier is a former French politician who held the post of EU commissioner for regional policy, then later shifted to the domestic market. He is a highly competent linguist and an experienced diplomat. He will be supported by a team of experts and his German deputy, Sabine Weyand. However, in terms of dealing with trade matters, the EU has a monopoly on information. Barnier's selection to lead EU negotiations has been seen by some in the UK as an affront because France has particularly little to gain from giving the British any concessions.

Brexit-Minister David Davis
Davis, one Britain's toughest negotiators, would rather have no deal than one he doesn't likeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/PA Wire

On the British side are current Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis - although his continuation in that post is dependent on the outcome of the elections in June - as well as the British Permanent Representative of the UK to the EU, Tim Barrow. It is also expected that Prime Minister Theresa May will send her own representative. The British negotiators, in contrast to their European counterparts, are in no way proven Europe experts - even their EU representative is new in his post after his predecessor stepped down a few months ago.

What happens if the British just leave?

This past weekend, Davis said that if the EU presents him with an exit bill of 100 million euros, he'll immediately break off the talks. Barnier took it in stride, saying he would regret it, but that it would be Davis' choice; it was the UK that decided to leave, not the other way around. His unyielding stance also applies to the order of the negotiating points, agreed by EU ministers: An orderly exit must first be agreed before there can be any discussion of a future relationship. Yet it must also be kept in mind, with such posturing on Davis' part, that Britain is currently in the middle of an election campaign.

Until now, Barnier's only concession to British wishes has been to say that it may be possible at this stage to roughly sketch the shape of future European-British relations. The EU's strategy appears to be avoiding a situation where the UK throws all the issues on the table at once, and uses them to barter for concessions and counter transactions.