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2 October 2016

Out by March 2019? Why Brexit will take far longer than we expect

Theresa May has announced that the government will trigger Article 50 no later than the end of March 2017. 

By Stephen Bush

And we’re off! Theresa May has confirmed that Britain will trigger Article 50 – the official mechanism to begin leaving the European Union – no later than the end of March 2017 in an interview on the Marr programme.

In a separate interview with the Sunday Times, the Prime Minister confirmed what we already knew – that the government will pass a bill repealing the European Communities Act of 1972. The European Communities Act automatically incorporates all European law into British law, and what May’s “Great Repeal Bill” will do is to pass all existing EU law into British law while ending the automatic legal link with future EU legislation.

That leaves the government free to repeal and retain whatever EU law it likes or dislikes further down the line.

The Great Repeal Bill is very probably the least controversial part of Britain’s Brexit process. There is unanimity among the legal profession that that is the best way to begin to disentangle British law from European law – although there will, of course, be a fierce political debate about which bits of EU law should be saved or scrapped.

And while there is much disagreement over what deal May should seek in talks over Article 50, the process itself is fairly uncontroversial, although the deal that emerges from it certainly won’t be.

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But what is being missed about both is that neither can truly be said to be the end of the Brexit process. Neither the repeal bill nor Britain’s exit deal – which will cover the terms under which Britain leaves the bloc, nothing more – will truly complete the long, long process of Britain’s exit from the European law. As far as the Supreme Court is concerned, the legal ramifications of Brexit will take up the life of the court for at least the next decade. As far as deals with other countries, there will be far more left to negotiate after Brexit than just trade.

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Everything from custody rights (currently guaranteed by the European Union) to research funding will have to be renegotiated and rethought, and few of that backlog will be dealt with by either a repeal bill or Article 50.

Theresa May turns 60 this weekend. It is highly likely that, when she celebrates her 80th birthday, Britain’s exit from the European Union will still be going on.