16 February 2017

Theresa May set herself the deadline of 31 March for triggering Article 50 in her Conservative Party Conference speech last year. Many in Westminster and elsewhere in the EU have assumed that she will use the 9-10 March meeting of EU leaders to give notice. An understandable reason for this is that the final reading for the Government’s European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill in the House of Lords has been scheduled for 7 March, which would seem to be designed to tie in with the early March summit. However, there are several reasons why the Government may wait until later in March.

Parliamentary procedure

Even if everything goes to the Government’s planned timetable in the House of Lords and there is no “ping-pong” between peers and the House of Commons over amendments, Royal Assent, the final stage required for the Bill to become law, may not be in place by the 9-10 March summit. However, it is perhaps more likely that there will indeed be some back-and-forth between the House of Lords and House of Commons, which means that the 7 March date slips. In fact, Brexit Secretary David Davis said as much earlier this week. It seems peers in the House of Lords are confident they have the votes to force amendments on issues such as the rights of EU nationals in the UK, for example. We will know more next week when Parliament returns from recess.

Dutch election and SNP conference

The following week may also be a difficult one for the Government to trigger Article 50. Firstly, the Dutch general election will take place on 15 March, and the UK would not want to be accused of overshadowing it – particularly when Geert Wilders’ popularity has put the issue of EU membership at the heart of the campaign.

Secondly, the SNP’s spring conference will take place on 17-18 March. Given that, on the subject of Brexit, tensions between Westminster and Edinburgh are already high, the Government is unlikely to want to stoke these further by firing the starting gun on EU negotiations when SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is due to give a set-piece speech, which could well address the issue of a second Scottish independence referendum.

60 year anniversary of the Treaty of Rome

The next headache for the Government is that the EU has scheduled a celebration of the 60 year anniversary of the founding Treaty of Rome on the 25 March – May has already said she will not be attending. As my colleague Vincenzo Scarpetta has noted, EU leaders are unlikely to look kindly on the celebratory mood of their gathering being punctured by the UK’s formal notification of withdrawal in the immediate days beforehand. Symbolism matters.

This all means that if Article 50 is not triggered at the 9-10 March summit, the week commencing 27 March is the only clear week, so the start of the process may have to wait until then.

Finally, there are two other considerations. As we’ve noted previously, the later in March that the UK starts the process, the more time there will be for substantive talks (which will be difficult before the German election on 24 September) and, given the short timetable, a couple of weeks could be important. And, while it might be better to formally table Article 50 in person at a meeting of EU leaders, there is no reason why this has to be the case. Indeed, David Cameron simply sent a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk when formally starting the renegotiation process prior to the referendum, so Theresa May could simply follow suit when it comes to triggering Britain’s exit from the EU.