Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, currently has a 29-strong team to coordinate Brussels’ efforts to reach a divorce deal with Britain by 2019:
Headed by Barnier, 66, a former French minister and EU commissioner, the team can call on and coordinate expertise across the European Commission, the EU’s executive.
Deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand, is a German veteran of the Commission, who studied at Cambridge in the 1980s. She spent the first half of a 23-year Commission career on trade policy and lately worked on coordination among EU institutions.
Also reporting directly to Barnier, as principal adviser for strategy, coordination and communication, is Stephanie Riso, a French economist with a Commission career in budgets and finance. Her seven-strong unit includes legal and diplomatic advisers, as well as a Maltese official whose role is to keep the 27 EU member states, not including Britain, in the loop.
That will work via reports to the European Council, chaired by former Polish premier Donald Tusk. There Didier Seeuws, a Belgian diplomat, is Brexit coordinator. When Malta’s six months in the EU presidency ends in June, an Estonian will take over on Barnier’s team, followed by a Bulgarian, Austrian and Romanian.
Three specialist units report to Weyand: Internal Market, Sectors and Cross-cutting Regulation with six staff; Budget, Spending Commitments and Programmes with two; and Trade and External Relations, Internal and External Security with three.
British Prime Minister Theresa May says she will trigger formal withdrawal under Article 50 of the EU treaty by the end of next month. Britain would rather avoid doing so in the second half of March, which would clash embarrassingly with a summit of the other 27 states in Rome on March 25 to celebrate the bloc’s 60th anniversary.
One possible date is March 9, the first day of a regular, two-day EU summit in Brussels, but the prime minister must wait for a parliamentary process in London to authorise the process.
Government minister David Lidington said he could not discuss firm dates when asked whether May could trigger Article 50 at the summit, adding only that she was on course to meet her commitment to launch talks by the end of March.
Once Tusk receives her formal letter, he will call a summit of the 27 in a month to six weeks, which must set out legally the negotiating mandate for the Commission and Barnier’s team. Tusk is keen to hold that Council meeting before France votes for a new president on April 23 and May 7. If London delays till late March, that could push the summit back till mid-May.
The day May’s letter is delivered, a clock is ticking that gives Britain two years to negotiate a deal or be dumped out of the EU messily, without sorting out its affairs. Barnier says, that gives him about 16 months until October 2018 to seal a deal that can then be formally ratified by the states and European Parliament before Britain leaves in March or April 2019.
Barnier has methodically broken down issues to be settled into areas that include: British payments to cover commitments it has made as a member (EU officials float a figure around 60 billion euros as a very rough guide); the legal status of EU and British expats on either side of their new frontier; how the new border will work, especially for trade and notably in Ireland.
As well as settling Britain’s loose ends with the EU, May says she wants to secure a comprehensive free trade deal within the two years, to be phased in after that. Many EU and British officials doubt it can be done in that time. The EU insists the divorce be agreed before setting terms for new trade relations and is open to transitional accords from 2019.