Road to Brexit is full of pitfalls

New British Prime Minister Theresa May must lead her country through uncharted territory as it withdraws from the European Union on a journey that could take nearly a decade.

Here are the key stops ahead on the roadmap to Brexit:

– Article 50 –

David Cameron left it up to his successor to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, so it is May’s choice when to formally notify Brussels and start a two-year countdown on divorce from the EU.

EU leaders have urged her to do it quickly, saying there can be no negotiations of any kind on Britain’s future relationship with the bloc until it does.

But with Britain still lacking a proper Brexit plan, May has previously indicated she will wait until the start of 2017.

She may however be tempted to move this forward after coming to power two months earlier than expected. One opportunity could be at the Conservative Party conference on October 2.

– Meet the neighbours –

May’s first meeting with key EU leaders could be at the G20 summit in China on September 4 or 5.

But her first encounter with all of the other 27 EU leaders will be at the next European Council summit on October 20-21.

The EU won’t stand still, though. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian PM Matteo Renzi will have a post-Brexit summit in late August.

The EU 27 then meet without Britain in Bratislava on September 16 to discuss the future of the union.

– Divorce 2019? –

The EU and Britain must reach a deal on the divorce itself during the two-year Article 50 period. If May triggers it in early 2017, then Britain could leave by early 2019.

This deal covers issues such as EU budget, the future of Britons currently living in the EU and vice versa.

They may also start informal talks on the future relationship — mainly focussing on trade issues, access to the single market, and immigration.

France’s presidential elections in April-May 2017 and Germany’s elections for chancellor in August-October 2017 could further hold up the process.

The two-year period can be extended if there is no deal but only by unanimous agreement by the rest of the 27.

Without a deal there will be a “Hard Brexit” — Britain will drop out of the EU and be subject to standard World Trade Organisation rules, including punishing tariffs.

– Hardball or softball –

Europe’s strategy remains unclear. Merkel could steer things calmly and quickly to reduce economically damaging uncertainty.

Merkel will “want to get the relationship off to a reasonably good start so I wouldn’t have thought there’d be too much overt arm twisting,” Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London told AFP.

But France has warned that it will be tough and Tusk has said that the EU will always act in its own interests first.

“It’s fairly clear Merkel and others want to get on with it, while it’s in the British interest in some sense to delay Article 50 as long as possible,” added Bale.

– Seven years of talks –

The EU and Britain will then have to decide the shape of their new relationship.

British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond this week said the whole process could take six years, including the two-year divorce. Tusk has warned it could take seven.

Possible models include Norway’s membership of the European Economic Area — although Britain would have to accept the free movement of EU migrants, which was one of the key issues that helped “Leave” win the referendum.

“That’s the essential trade off in these negotiations, free trade v freedom of movement,” Anand Menon, European politics professor at King’s College London, told AFP.

Another option is Switzerland’s wide range of EU agreements, Turkey’s customs union, or Canada’s trade deal with the EU, still unsigned seven years after talks started.

A single form of “associate status” for Britain, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey was proposed in a report by a European Parliament committee this week.

– Endgame 2023? –

The eventual EU-UK deal must then be agreed by the bloc’s 38 national and regional parliaments — including all seven Belgian parliamentary chambers.

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