The scope of the negotiations
On 23 June 2016 the people of the United Kingdom voted on the question: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" The result of the referendum was that 17.4 million people (51.9% of the total) voted to leave the EU, and 16.1 million (48.1%) voted to remain.
Shortly before the referendum was held, the House of Lords European Union Committee published a report on The process of withdrawing from the European Union. The Committee noted that the only way for the UK to withdraw consistent with EU and international law was to follow the procedure set out in Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.
Under Article 50, any State withdrawing from the EU must formally notify the European Council of its intention. The UK did so by means of the Prime Minister's letter to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, dated 29 March 2017.
Article 50 provides for a two-year period following notification, within which the two sides are to reach agreement on the withdrawal arrangements, while taking account of the framework for their future relationship. The two-year period may be extended, but only by unanimous agreement.
Who conducts the negotiations?
The two sides to the Brexit negotiations are the UK, as the withdrawing State, and the EU and its 27 remaining Member States (the 'EU 27').
The EU is represented by the European Commission, which has appointed Michel Barnier, a former French MP, Minister, MEP and European Commissioner, as its Chief Negotiator; the UK by the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), led by the Secretary of State, Rt Hon David Davis MP.
The role of the other key EU institutions
Under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, the EU 27 are authorised to meet without the UK to discuss matters relating to the UK's withdrawal from the EU. The European Council, made up of the Heads of State or Government of the EU 27, is responsible for setting the EU's guidelines for the Brexit negotiations.
The European Council has established a working group to work on the UK's exit from the EU, headed by Belgian diplomat Didier Seeuws. It liaises closely with the European Commission and ensures that the European Council’s priorities are respected.
The European Parliament must give its consent to any draft withdrawal agreement agreed between the EU and the UK. All Members of the European Parliament (including UK MEPs) will be entitled to vote, and consent will require a simple majority.
Pending this final stage of the process, the European Parliament agreed a resolution in April 2017 setting out its priorities for the negotiations, and has appointed the former Prime Minister of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt MEP, as its Brexit Coordinator.
In addition, in April 2017 the European Parliament's Conference of Presidents (COP) approved the creation of a 'Brexit Steering Group' (BSG), chaired by Mr Verhofstadt. The BSG is tasked with coordinating and preparing the EP's deliberations, considerations and resolutions on the UK withdrawal. Only those political groups that supported the European Parliament's resolution on Brexit on 5 April 2017 are represented on the BSG, meaning that the political groups to which UK Conservative and UKIP MEPs belong are not represented.
Mr Barnier has undertaken to meet the BSG before and after each round of negotiations.
How the negotiations are organised
On 19 June 2017 the UK Government and the European Commission jointly published the terms of reference for the Article 50 negotiations.
The negotiating rounds, which take place every three or four weeks, consist of plenary sessions and negotiating group meetings. In the latter, working groups of officials discuss specific issues and report back to the plenary session.
Plenary negotiating sessions are co-chaired by the "Principals", Mr Barnier and Mr Davis, or by the "Coordinators": Sabine Weyand for the Commission, and Oliver Robbins (Permanent Secretary at DExEU) for the UK. The Principals and Coordinators have the overall responsibility for managing the negotiating process and providing necessary guidance, as appropriate.
In the initial phase, the following negotiating groups have been established:
- Citizens' rights;
- Financial settlement;
- Other separation issues.
In addition, a dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland has been launched under the authority of the Coordinators.
Indicative dates for the first five rounds of negotiations have been agreed:
- Opening of negotiations: 19 June
- Second round: week commencing 17 July
- Third round: week commencing 28 August
- Fourth round: week commencing 18 September
- Fifth round: week commencing 9 October.
The European Council, in its published guidelines for the negotiations, has stated that negotiations should only turn to the framework for the future relationship between the UK and the EU once "sufficient progress has been made in the first phase towards reaching a satisfactory agreement on the arrangements for an orderly withdrawal".
Negotiating texts and other documents
For both parties the default is transparency. Texts that are intended for discussion at any negotiating round should be shared at least one week in advance wherever possible. The European Commission and the UK Government have also both set up web pages relating to the negotiations, on which relevant documents are published.