The EU has been adamant that there will be no negotiation with the UK without formal notification that Britain is leaving. But next Wednesday, Theresa May will formally trigger Article 50—beginning the two-year process for Britain leaving the EU.
Many in government expect the start of the talks to be difficult: ‘get ready for a spot of turbulence’ says one of those intimately involved in the preparations for the negotiations. The expectation is that the EU will insist that the so-called ‘divorce bill’ must be settled first while the UK is adamant that it will only discuss that if the future trade relationship between the UK and the EU is also on the table.
But there is a way for the talks to get off to a more positive start: that is with an early agreement on a reciprocal rights deal for EU citizens in the UK and vice-versa. The UK government is keen on this; ministers repeatedly reassured MPs that they would try and get this done as soon as possible as they tried to get the Brexit bill through parliament. Interestingly, the EU also wants to get this done quickly. Michel Barnier, the Commission’s chief negotiator, has talked about how citizens must come first and the Spanish, who host the largest UK population in the EU, have repeatedly made clear that they would be happy with a reciprocal deal.
One reason the EU is interested in getting this done early is that they want to reassure the Eastern Europeans, who are particularly worried about security, that their interests will be respected in the negotiations. A quick deal on the rights of their citizens living in the UK would do that.
We may well see a ‘heads of agreement’ on a reciprocal rights deal within the first few months of the negotiations. It wouldn’t necessarily deal with all the details of how health coverage is paid for and the like, but it would establish the principle that EU citizens living and working in the UK are allowed to carry on doing so and vice-versa.