Brexit: Seven things that have happened in the seven days since the UK triggered Article 50

Talk of war with longstanding allies, hate crime and national hysteria over a dubious story about chocolate eggs have marked the beginning of the UK's divorce from the EU

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 05 April 2017 18:20 BST
Theresa May signs the official letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, invoking Article 50
Theresa May signs the official letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, invoking Article 50

A week after Britain triggered Article 50, it has been forced to back down on almost all of its demands and effectively threatened war with Spain. There are at least 103 more weeks of negotiations left to go.

Just seven days after Theresa May wrote her letter and had it hand-delivered to European leaders, the tone appears to have been set for the remaining two years of talks - with politicians warning these discussions are likely to extend well beyond that timeframe.

Much has happened since that landmark constitutional moment. Here are the seven of the more significant - and potentially telling - incidents of the seven days that began Britain's divorce proceedings from the European Union.

Talk of war with Spain

Theresa May’s Article 50 letter made great efforts to be conciliatory, arguing that Britain would keep its important and historic relationships with Europe. But that history goes both ways, and oft-neglected disputes over Gibraltar were re-awakened.

The entire furore began with a tiny clause in the EU’s guidelines for how the Brexit negotiations would begin, making clear that any changes to the Rock’s status would require Spain’s approval. It ended with threats of war and newspaper campaigns to launch military offensives on Spanish boats.

This was largely prompted by former Conservative leader Michael Howard, who resurrected the spirit of Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War, suggesting that Theresa May would also not hesitate to kill hundreds of people to protect the enclave.

The Sun even printed a poster allowing its readers to more easily insult the Spanish, while The Daily Mail excitedly suggested that the Navy should be set on a Spanish boat.

Negotiations about Gibraltar have not yet formally begun.

Refugee violently attacked in Croydon

The effect of Brexit on hate crime had been starkly clear ever since 24 June: racists, emboldened by what appeared to them to be a nationwide vote in their favour, proceeded to terrify people across the country.

Days after the Article 50 letter was sent, an Iraqi Kurd who had found refuge in the UK was beaten so badly that was he was left close to death.

There was no explicit connection to Brexit. But it follows a horrifying run of racist incidents that run from the minor to the fatal and which have surged in number over the last year.

£500 million to be spent on new passports

Brexit will have lasting implications for the entire economy, the future of the United Kingdom and perhaps the world.

But as negotiations began, Britain got to solving the biggest issue that has plagued it under the European yoke: the fact that out-of-touch, stuffy European bureaucrats force the proud people of the UK to use red passports.

Days after Article 50 was triggered, it was announced that the Government would look to get rid of the old (and suspiciously French-looking) burgundy booklets and replace them with more Anglo-Saxon blue ones. In all, that will cost £500 million – far more than what is being saved by many of the various divisive public spending cuts that have been instituted as part of austerity measures over the last decade.

Government tries to bargain over security, rapidly backtracks after widespread condemnation

Given the unprecedented and significant nature of the Article 50 letter, it was pored over for hints as to how Britain would proceed through the negotiations.

Gibraltar was not the only minor clause that sparked a diplomatic event; a mention of security issues in Theresa May’s letter did the same.

Many interpreted a reference to the work that the UK does in keeping Europe safe as a suggestion that the country might threaten to stop sharing its intelligence and security expertise with the rest of the continent if it did not get its own way. That quickly sparked criticism that Ms May and her government were looking to use people’s safety as a bargaining chip.

The Government initially held strong, and then relented. Boris Johnson told Europe that the UK’s commitment to security was unconditional and would not be use during negotiations, by which time a spirit of resentment for the forthcoming discussions had already been successfully set.

European politicians reject almost everything the UK asked for

The UK suggested it would be able to negotiate its divorce deal while also setting up new relationships with the countries of Europe; European president Donald Tusk said such an arrangement was not going to be possible.

Theresa May said that she would be able to get those deals done in two years; other leaders told her that schedule almost certainly was not feasible. The UK hoped it could get deals with specific countries; Mr Tusk said that individual members cannot negotiate as such until the UK became a non-member.

The UK has to walk back its entire negotiating position

Theresa May’s letter triggering Article 50 was clear: the country was going to leave the EU, and it would immediately start negotiating how it would do that, as well as what the trade arrangements would be once it did so.

And the EU’s response was just as clear: that was simply not going to be possible.

Brexit: Theresa May on trade, security and the single market

As soon as Ms May made clear that she would look to hold parallel talks on both the divorce and the arrangement after it, almost all of Europe’s most senior politicians came back.

The Prime Minister did not acknowledge for days that her letter was wrong, continuing to insist that both sets of negotiations were ongoing. Until she was forced, just six days into the process, to wall back her entire position.

Prime minister criticises chocolate eggs

Theresa May might have been silent on war with Spain, and stubbornly quiet on how negotiations would be conducted, but she was very clear on one thing. Just as the fallout from Article 50 started to settle, she became engaged in a falling out of her own – with the National Trust and Cadbury, over what name should be attached to chocolate eggs.

After a week of relative silence over the central issues of Brexit, she wasted no time in telling both groups that they must use the word Easter in the title of their chocolate egg hunt, suggesting it was "absolutely ridiculous" that they had not .

It did not matter, apparently, that they actually had – or that other matters filling her in-tray included the UK's most significant constitutional crisis in 300 years and speculation about a war with a longstanding European ally over a 300-year-old territory – and Ms May launched a volley of clear disavowals about an essentially made-up story.

The type of condemnation many have pointed out she had failed to offer when asked about Brexit-related hate crimes, Donald Trump's 'Muslim ban', threats of war or the suggestion the country should spend hundreds of millions of pounds changing the colour of its passport slightly.

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