The Brexit clock has started but who are we negotiating with...?

Beyond the move to trigger Article 50 tomorrow, the only thing that is certain in the next nine months is continued uncertainty. Whilst many have rushed to seek legal opinion, the situation we face is without legal precedent. It is political decisions that will set the mandate for negotiations and answer legal questions about how we will place all our existing EU laws on a new UK footing, what support key industries can expect in the interim and if talks on future and global trade can possibly take place in parallel.


Whitehall is struggling to balance the needs of every sector of the UK economy to determine our stance and red lines. By contrast the European institutions are designed to wring out ugly political compromises between 28 different countries. They are culturally and practically better prepared for what happens now. A political journalist returning from the recent Brussels summit told us the attitude to forthcoming negotiations was “we got this.” Is this hubris or not? Only time will tell but we should anticipate that the UK Government’s choices will be restricted by the reaction of our neighbours: this is a negotiation and as time ticks away, more power will be vested in the remaining Member States.


But who is actually sitting on the other side of the negotiation table? Beyond Merkel, Tusk and the colourful Mr Juncker, who have driven much of the coverage to date, we’ve looked at the personalities and the processes that you haven’t heard of, to help shed some light on what comes next and what we need to know.


Who's who in the negotiations

There is an ongoing power-struggle within the Brussels institutions about the ownership of the complex negotiating mandate. A task force has been created, under Michel Barnier, the Commission appointed lead EU negotiator, who at least in theory will have authority over technical matters. Barnier’s team will report monthly to, and leave key decisions for, the representatives of the 27 Heads of Government within the Council’s General Affairs Committee. Key representatives of the European Parliament will be invited to attend the joint Taskforce/Council monthly meetings, and Barnier is also charged with keeping the EP “closely informed” on his progress.

 Barnier's CV shows his progression from centre-right domestic politician to Brussel's bureaucrat,

  • 2015-2016: Special Advisor, European Defence and Security Policy to the President of the European Commission
  • 2010-2014: EC Vice-President, Internal Market and Services
  • 2009-2010: MEP, President of the French delegation of the EPP
  • 2007-2009: Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries of France
  • 2006-2007: VP of Mérieux Alliance (International Relations)
  • 2004-2005: Minister of Foreign Affairs of France
  • 1999-2004: EU Commissioner (Regional Policy and the Institutional Reform)
  • 1993-1999: Served as a Minister in the French Government under Francois Mitterrand, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, looking after Agriculture, Environment and European Affairs briefs.  
  • 1973-1993: Regional Councilor for Savoie, in South Eastern France 

Barnier's Brexit Task Force will bear the brunt of negotiations. It comprises 29 individuals whose job it will be to manage, liaise, and negotiate across all stakeholders and parties over the next 24 months. There are three groups within the Task Force that work on specific issues; Internal Market, Sectors and Cross-Cutting Regulation, the Budget, Spending Commitments and Programmes and Trade and External Relations, Internal and External Security.

An organogram of the team can be viewed here and keen politicos can follow his key members: Sabine Weyand, Deputy Chief Negotiator, Barthélemy Piche, Barnier's Policy Assistant, Justyna Lasik, Policy Assistant to Sabine Weyand and Stefaan De Rynck, responsible for relations with Think Tanks & Communication – Institutional Affairs, on twitter. 


Discuss everything, agree nothing

The UK may hope for quick “wins” to showcase its successful negotiating tactics to the UK public. Signals from both sides indicate that we might get early agreement on UK expats and the rights of EU citizens already living and working in the UK. On other matters the EU however will play the long game; discussing everything, whilst agreeing nothing. They propose to work through the established 35 "chapters" for accession talks in reverse, giving a clear roadmap for completion. Each chapter will only be officially closed by unanimous agreement of the Heads of State at a European Council meeting. Crucially this does not include the budget discussion or "divorce bill" which is likely to prove the most controversial part of the discussions. Michel Barnier wrote in the FT (£) yesterday, whilst there is "no price to pay" for leaving the European Union "we must settle our accounts."

Trade talks cannot officially be negotiated side-by-side as Britain seeks to leave. Article 50 only incorporates a member state leaving the EU, trade negotiations fall under a separate Article 218. Despite domestic pressure, any attempt to lay down the groundwork for trade deals before addressing key issues like ex-pats, Northern Ireland and the budget are likely to fall on deaf ears.


Process: where and when decisions will be made

When Article 50 is triggered, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, will call an emergency Council meeting (22 May) where the legal parameters for Barnier’s team will be thrashed out. Once Barnier’s parameters are clear, negotiations will finally begin.

Beyond Barnier and his deputy, the somewhat obscure individuals who will be in the room for this historic process are...

  • A representative from the country holding the rotating Presidency of the Council, starting with Randolph De Battista, Maltese PermRep. (To be followed by Estonia: July - December 2017, Bulgaria: January - June 2018, Austria: July - December 2018, Romania: January - June 2019.)
  • Representative of the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, Didier Seeuws, Council Special Taskforce Chief Negotiator.
  • European Commission Officials from the relevant Directorate Générale as each chapter is discussed.

Who are they reporting to? 

1.          Ad hoc Working Party on Article 50 (we kid you not, this is the name)

The Working Party will be created following the Council meeting on 22 May. Respective representatives will report on the status and negotiating pinch points to their groups. Feedback on each chapter will be compiled by the Working Party and laid out for the General Affairs Committee at their monthly meeting. The Working Party will have a dedicated Chair (yet to be appointed). Once appointed, meeting dates will be confirmed.

2.          The General Affairs Council

The Chair of the Working Group will manage all negotiation submissions and report to the General Affairs Council. This is a meeting for all EU Ministers across the EU-27. Each representative will then update domestic officials, with any disagreements or challenges fed up to the European Council meeting. Its next meetings are: 25 April 2017; 16 May 2017; and 20 June 2017.

3.          Report to the European Parliament

Following the General Affairs Council, a representative from the relevant Rotating Presidency (currently Malta) will report and update the European Parliament on the status of negotiations. The European Parliament President, Antonio Tajani, will then be invited to address the next European Council meeting and give his viewpoint on discussions.

4.          European Council

The European Council will hear from the President of the European Parliament at the start of each meeting, reviewing any remaining challenges or outstanding issues before feeding their recommendations back to Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator. Its next meetings are:

  • 22 May 2017 (special meeting to adopt the guidelines for the Brexit negotiations and formalise the parameters which the Brexit Task Force can operate)
  • 22-23 June 2017
  • 19-20 October 2017
  • 14-15 December 2017
  • 22-23 March 2018
  • 28-29 June 2018


The road ahead

For the next six months, both German and French elections have the possibility of shaking up Barnier's "ordered and transparent" negotiating strategy. This means even the quickest of “quick wins” is unlikely to emerge until November at the earliest.

Final ratification will also need to be agreed upon by all EU-27 independently, as well as the European Parliament. This in effect means that the 29th March 2019 is a fantasy deadline, the actual package and final deal will need to be agree upon by October/November 2018 to allow at least 5 months of negotiation and ratification by Member States and the European Parliament.

European Parliamentary elections are also due to occur in May 2019. In the run up to their own re-election, MEPs set to vote on any EU-UK deal can be relied upon to raise political curveballs, seeking to make headlines in their home nations.

For businesses seeking to track and influence the Brexit process, engagement in Brussels and in key European capitals is advisable. If you want help understanding the impact on your business and how to raise awareness amongst political decision makers in the UK or abroad, do get in touch.