Article 50: what comes next?

Now that MPs have voted through the bill to trigger Article 50, Matthew Partridge looks at the next stage of Brexit.


Triggering Article 50 allows the UK to begin trade negotiations with other countries.
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Last week, the House of Commons passed legislation allowing the government to trigger Article 50. Despite attempts to amend the bill, the government was in the end forced to agree only one concession: to allow another vote on the final deal before it is ratified by the various European institutions.

However, as various people have already pointed out, if Parliament votes the deal down, it won't mean that the negotiations will begin from scratch. Instead, Britain and the EU will simply default to World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, the loosest possible relationship. So Parliament's ability to force the government towards a closer relationship or water down Brexit, depending on your perspective will be strictly limited.

Of course, the bill still needs to pass through the House of Lords. In theory, this should be a major problem for the government. Less than a third of the 802 peers are Conservative, and even those may be more independent-minded than MPs. However, this is less of a hurdle for the government that you'd think.

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If an elected body such as the Commons feels that it doesn't have the legitimacy to go against the results of the referendum, then an appointed body is on even weaker ground. Even if it did, the government can use the Parliament Act to impose its will over the Lords.

Perhaps the most the Lords can try is to add amendments, which several peers have indicated that they will attempt to do. However, these are likely to be quickly undone once the bill returns to the Commons.

The government has hinted that any serious attempt to either block or delay the bill will force it to open a debate on the future of the Lords, including its possible abolition. Given that there are already moves to find ways of reducing the number of peers, this isn't an idle threat. Overall, we can expect a relatively clean version of the bill to be passed and receive royal assent by mid-March at the very latest.

This will leave the government plenty of time to formally trigger Article 50 before its self-imposed deadline of the end of March. Of course, proper negotiations are unlikely to begin immediately. The French presidential election means that everything will be on hold until after the second round on 7 May. While the polls still suggest that either Emmanuel Macron or Franois Fillon will be the new occupant of the Elyse Palace, a Marine Le Pen victory could throw the whole process into chaos, since she has pledged to call a referendum on whether France should remain part of the EU.

The first issue that is likely to be on the agenda is the status of EU citizens living in the UK, and UK citizens living in the EU. This should be an easy win for both sides, since there is overwhelming support in the UK for EU citizens to remain (although people want future immigration from the EU to be sharply limited). Similarly, it is the interest of both the UK and Spain that the large number of elderly British expatriates remain in Spain, paying into the local economy, rather than returning home where they would consume NHS and social care resources. The only possible block is the status of EU citizens who arrive over the next two years.

Triggering Article 50 will also allow the UK to begin trade negotiations with other countries. While we won't be allowed to sign any deals while we are still EU members, there's nothing to stop us lining up agreements that come into effect the day that we leave.

Of course, agreeing third-party deals will almost certainly lead to British exports to the EU facing increased border checks to ensure that other countries can't use us to bypass EU tariffs, something that will presumably be negotiated as part of any exit.

One factor that could slow the initial pace of negotiations with both Brussels and other countries is our lack of experienced trade negotiators. This is because we haven't done any independent trade deals since Britain joined the EU in 1973. Similarly, many British civil servants now work directly for Brussels, which has said that it will continue to employ them, even after Brexit. While the government replaced the ambassador to the EU at the start of the year, reports suggest that it is still scrambling to hire people.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri