What to Expect After Brexit Is Triggered

Today might be the beginning of the end of Britain as we know it.

Mar 29 2017, 9:59am

(A protester in Parliament Square, London. Photo: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire/PA Images)

At 12.30PM today, the UK's permanent representative to the European Union will deliver a letter to the President of the European Council, providing notification of the government's intention to leave the EU. This diplomatic exchange will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin the two-year process of negotiating and finalising the terms of Britain's withdrawal. 

We are far from Brexit's final scene – this is only the end of the first act. 

The European Council President, Donald Tusk, is expected to make an announcement after receiving the letter, before publishing a draft of the EU's negotiating guidelines. A summit will be convened on the 29th of April for ministers from each EU member state, excluding Britain, to approve them. The negotiations won't actually start until mid-May, but the two-year countdown begins today. 

As experienced negotiators have pointed out, two years is not a long time, especially when you take into account the following: firstly, the initial meetings are likely to be meta-meetings, working out how many they will have, who will be present and what subjects will be discussed in what order. This, in itself, will be contentious, since both sides have different priorities. Secondly, Germany, the EU's key player, has federal elections in September, which are likely to take up most of its attention, as will any EU-wide crisis that happens over the next two years. Thirdly, it has been suggested that the final deal will need to be approved in every separate member state's parliament, the European Parliament and the House of Commons, within the two-year period. 

In practice there will probably be fewer than 18 months of negotiation, during which time the British government – bullish and delusional as ever – expects to minimise its "divorce settlement" bill and have the outline of a free trade agreement ready, which will guarantee the same benefits that come with being a member of the Single Market. But because Britain's departure will cost the EU – the UK contributes 12.5 percent of its budget – the Commission has suggested it won't discuss free trade arrangements until it's dealt with the divorce bill first, or else it'll be left with a financial shortfall come 2019. 

The bill has been estimated at €60 billion by the Australian Chancellor. This is presumably based on an estimation of debts and obligations for things like pensions for EU employees and fiscal spending projects that Britain signed up for before the Brexit referendum, although David Davis, the Brexit secretary, has said he's seen no workings to explain the figure. In her Lancaster House speech in January, Theresa May said: "The days of Britain making vast contributions to the European Union every year will end." This, technically, leaves space for a final payment, or a series of small staggered payments over the coming years, but that's a nuance that will likely be lost on Brexiteers and the Tory party's right wing. They are expecting a "clean break". Paying a massive leaving bill will be politically disastrous for the government. 

Theresa May signs the Article 50 letter, as she prepares to trigger the start of the UK's formal withdrawal from the EU. Photo: Christopher Furlong/PA Wire/PA Images.

If Britain leaves without a deal or a transitional agreement after the two years – "No deal is better than a bad deal," were May's infamous words – it will be forced to use World Trade Organisation rules for trade, leading to instant levies for British exporters. This is one of many reasons why the EU will have the upper hand during negotiations. Although Britain could use access to the City of London – a central node in European capitalism – and the value of its defence spending as leverage against the Europeans, it is hard to see it having a strong bargaining position. 

Another reason the EU will have the upper hand is administrative: European negotiators are famed for their ruthlessness and acuity. Many of them have been trained in France's famously rigorous government school, Ecole nationale d'administration, where they are furnished with an intimate knowledge of EU bureaucracy. Margaret Thatcher, another Conservative Prime Minister who tried to wrest British interests from European supranationalism, was keenly aware of this. During negotiations with the EU in the 1980s over monetary integration, she confided that the European Commission's French negotiators were "preternaturally cunning", "cleverer than us" and going to |run rings around [Britain]". 

Circumstances have made this an inauspicious week to trigger Article 50. Power-sharing talks between Sinn Fein and the DUP at Stormont have collapsed, and there is "no appetite" to hold another election. This means the prospect of direct rule, governing Northern Ireland directly from Westminster with input from Dublin, is possible if the parties fail to form a government of their own accord in the next three weeks. The last time direct rule was introduced was 2002 and it lasted for five years. However, this was relatively unproblematic because both the UK and Ireland were members of the EU – as of today, the UK has only two years of membership left.

The Scottish Parliament has also chosen to make this week particularly foreboding. Its devolved parliament passed a vote sanctioning a second referendum on independence, in accordance with the SNP's manifesto promise for another referendum in the case of "a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out the EU against [its] will" – putting another question mark over Britain's territorial integrity. 

"Britain's governing class doesn't have the imaginative capacity to think of a new imperial substitute for life after the EU. Hence all the nostalgic talk of 'Empire 2.0' and re-commissioning a new Britannia yacht."

Brexit has produced a whole range of morbid symptoms; the long-running inequities between England and the peripheral nations are flaring like a rash on the body politic. As I've written before in this column, the long-term cause of what feels like political disintegration is the unresolved loss of Britain's Empire, the thing that kept the show together for 300 years.

In his 1977 book The Break-Up Of Britain, the historian Tom Nairn, who foresaw the "neo-nationalism" of Scotland upending the UK's fragile unity, argues that it was the "external success" of the British Empire that kept England, Scotland and Wales bound together under Westminster's arcane constitution. These nations became "important sub-centres" of the Victorian imperial economy and "around their great urban centres – Belfast, Cardiff and Glasgow – evolved middle and working classes who, consciously and indisputably, gave their primary political allegiance to the imperial state".

As that imperial state declined over the 20th century, so too did the raison d'etre of the United Kingdom. Nairn claims that the development of the City of London as a "nucleus of world capitalism" and the decision to join the European Economic Community (later the EU) were "imperial substitutes". But nothing repressed Britain's internal divisions as well as Empire.

By the end of the 20th century, a fatal mixture of Thatcher's deindustrialisation and the sundering of the working class bonds; the destructive over-reliance in the economy on the City of London's finance capitalism; and those delusions of imperial greatness in the middle class conspired to create a demographic strong enough to deliver the Brexit vote. Britain's governing class doesn't have the imaginative capacity to think of a new imperial substitute for life after the EU. Hence all the nostalgic talk of "Empire 2.0" and re-commissioning a new Britannia yacht

So when the ambassador triggers Article 50 today, he might not just be inaugurating the end of the beginning of Brexit, but the beginning of the end of Britain as we know it, a unitary state made up of four nations. If it weren't so real – if you could watch from a spectator's seat, removed from the material and ideological consequences of Brexit – it would probably be quite fun. There is something so historically neat about it: the Greatest Empire that ever was creating the conditions for its own downfall. Of course it would end like this. 



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