9 months ago the British people bought a train ticket to leave the EU.  Today we boarded the train and begin to pull out of the station.  We know we are heading out of the EU but we don't yet know exactly what our destination will look like or what the journey holds.  But with the triggering of article 50 today, and the EU Council's response, we did get some indications of what the route may look like over the next few months.  

What did we learn today from Theresa May’s article 50 letter to Donald Tusk, President of the EU Council, and Donald Tusk’s response? Essentially, we learnt a little more about the UK Government’s negotiating aims and a little about the EU Council’s process and timetable for agreeing their negotiating aims.

There were a few interesting points in Theresa May’s letter:

  • The UK Government wants to negotiate the UK’s future relationship with EU (i.e. trade relationship and security cooperation) at the same time as negotiation on the ‘divorce’ settlement. [NB the EU Council may prefer to focus on the divorce settlement first]

  • Theresa May expects to devolve powers from the EU to the Scottish, N Ireland and Wales devolved administrations.

  • Theresa May explicitly proposes ‘implementation periods’ or transitional arrangements – i.e. an extended period beyond March 2019 to allow for transition to new arrangements. This will be welcomed by business and is likely to also be supported by the rest of the EU as a sensible approach to ensure an orderly process for businesses and citizens in the UK and EU.

  • The UK wants to agree the rights of EU citizens in UK and UK citizens in EU at the earliest opportunity. Again, this is something employers have been calling for; but it stops short of providing a guarantee now for EU citizens currently working in the UK.

  • The UK will seek an ‘ambitious and bold’ Free Trade Agreement between UK and EU – ‘greater in scope and ambition than any before’. This rather ups the ante on what type of free trade agreement the UK is seeking. The EU is unlikely to agree such an extensive agreement – but setting a bold aim may help ensure that the inevitable compromise is better.

The European Council’s response to Theresa May’s letter is much shorter. The key factual point in it is that:

  • The next step is for the European Union to agree the process for negotiations and their negotiating principles. This will take a month or so – the aim is for it to be adopted at the next meeting of the European Council (heads of state of the EU countries) on 29 April. A draft of these proposals will be published on Friday.

There was common ground on one point. Both Theresa May and Donald Tusk emphasised that the UK remains a member of the EU during the negotiation period and therefore the legal framework and all rights and responsibilities remain unchanged for now. It is worth reminding ourselves of this – whilst organisations need to develop their plans for Brexit we are nonetheless still in the EU for now.  The Brexit train hasn't yet crossed the border.