Nearly two years after the Brexit vote, the UK's future outside the European Union remains clouded by uncertainty, with the precise details of what kind of relationship Britain will have with the EU after its departure still to be decided.
Nevertheless, a certain amount of progress has been made towards a final Brexit settlement since formal talks began last year. This has allowed a clearer idea of the timeline for the UK's departure from the union has started to emerge - albeit one that still remains subject to change, due to the evolving nature of the negotiation process.
With Brexit set to become official in little over a year, businesses involved in international trade will be keen to keep abreast of the latest developments as and when they occur.
What progress has been made?
Since the British public voted to leave the EU on June 23rd 2016, the process of making this a reality has proven challenging, but a number of key steps have nevertheless been made:
- The UK has triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the formal mechanism by which an EU member state can leave the bloc. This was activated on March 29th 2017, beginning a two-year countdown that will see Britain cease to be a member of the EU on March 29th 2019.
- In December 2017, a provisional agreement was reached on three key issues that the EU considered essential before the next phase of talks could commence. It was agreed that the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and vice-versa would continue to be protected after Brexit; that the process would not result in the establishment of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; and that Britain will pay a "divorce bill" of around €50 billion to cover its commitments to the EU.
- The UK and EU have agreed that a transitional deal should be put in place after March 2019, which would see Britain continuing to operate under current EU rules while new trade agreements are discussed. This would provide more time for the details of the UK's post-Brexit relationship with Europe and other countries to be worked out, while minimizing the chance of Britain dropping out of the EU with no new trade deals in place.
What key dates are coming up?
Based on these earlier negotiations, the business community is forming a picture of what the remainder of the Brexit process may look like:
- March 2018 - The EU will prepare detailed trade negotiating positions, while both sides will hopefully agree to a transition period deal
- April 2018 - Talks on a new EU-UK trade deal could begin
- October 2018 - A withdrawal treaty could be put forward by the EU, formalizing the details of Brexit
- Late 2018/early 2019 - British ministers will vote on whether to accept the EU's withdrawal treaty
- March 29th 2019 - Britain's membership of the EU will end
- March 30th 2019 - The Brexit transition period will begin, with the UK maintaining current EU rules and access terms while it negotiates new trade deals
- January 1st 2021 - The transition period ends, with Britain implementing its new trade agreements and finally ending its obligations to the EU, completing the Brexit process
Which details are subject to change?
Aside from the March 2019 Brexit date, much of this timeline remains theoretical for the time being, as disagreements or delays to the negotiating process will mean that any of the dates could end up being pushed back. With British and European leaders still at odds on a number of key issues, this may be the likeliest outcome.
Moreover, it has not yet been fully decided how long the transition period will last, as the UK and EU may decide to extend the arrangement past the current cut-off point at the end of 2020 if this is deemed to be necessary. The outside possibility remains, also, that the UK could decide to hold a second Brexit referendum when the final deal is published, which could throw the entire process into doubt.
In the face of this uncertainty, businesses will need to keep a close eye on the current progress of the negotiations and ensure they have taken necessary preparations to prevent any disruption, regardless of what form Brexit takes.