UK-EU : negotiations in progress

To remain in the EU or to leave it? That was the question British people had to answer on the 23rd June 2016. But who could have thought that the answer would have been « Leave »? Ten months after the unexpected result, we can notice that the United Kingdom is likely to be known as the « Disunited Kingdom » into a few months. The negotiations have been launched on Saturday 29th April in Brussels.

Four minutes to adopt the guidelines

Days and months after the decision of British people to leave the European Union, senior officials in Brussels have laboured fastidiously to keep the rest of the bloc together. It was hard, but they succeeded: in Brussels, remaining members show remarkable unity in approving negotiation guidelines. However, tougher challenges lie ahead. Nevertheless, it is something good for the 27 countries, insofar as disagreement, discrepancies and debate are in the institution’s DNA. The key message from EU officials was that the approval was quick and unanimous

Perhaps nobody has been more astonished at the EU’s ability to hold together than Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister. Saturday night though, Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, declared that “It was the first and last time that we are able to conclude in 4 minutes, so don’t expect us to keep the same speed. It will never happen again.”

Developing the guidelines was relatively easy, largely because they emphasize points all EU countries agree on: the need to negotiate withdrawal terms before an agreement on future relations, prioritizing citizens’ right, the financial settlements and border concerns, particularly for Ireland.

Negotiations May be tougher than expected

Saturday’s summit was the first official gathering of the 27 EU leaders since Theresa May sent a letter formally triggering the article 50 withdrawal process in late March. German chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that the negotiations would take place in distinct phases. Phase one will focus on the terms of Britain departure including a financial settlement. Phase two will be about future relations between the two parts. She emphasized telling that the two phases are strictly different. “We will take a conscious political decision before we move from phase 1 –separation- to phase 2 – the transition to future relations”.

Angela Merkel insisted on the fact that the UK should have “no illusions” about it standing after it leaves the bloc, but promised to be “fair and constructive” during the negotiation. She expected the negotiations to get started properly only after the June 8 general election in Great Britain. She and Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, hope to complete the first phase of talks on Britain departure from the bloc by the fall of this year.

One diplomat working for Downing Street explains that negotiations are going to be tough, especially because Great Britain wants the future relationship between the EU and the UK anchored by a robust free trade agreement on the table from the start. If Juncker pointed out the will of the UK, he also declared that without an agreement on the fee the UK has to pay to exit the EU, there would be no desire among the 27 member states to make that happen.

The hard part starts now

For the remaining members, the honeymoon is over, they have to be back in reality. No one knows better than the 27 leaders how hard, if not impossible, it will be to keep up the unified front as the two sides plunge into the detailed process. Now the hard part begins, and the risk of disagreement among the EU27 on detailed aspects of the Brexit negotiations is high, above all because the interests of individual countries in the Brexit talks diverge as much as they do on any other issue.

When it comes to citizens’ rights for example, countries such as Spain and Malta have a primary interest in the fate of British pensioners who live in those countries. On the contrary, Poland and Lithuania are far more concerned about their own citizens living and working in the UK. Finally, some countries, such as Belgium or the Netherlands, are nearly as eager as the UK to move to discussions on a future free trade agreement.

I have the impression sometimes that our British friends, not all of them, do underestimate the technical difficulties we have to face” said Juncker at a press conference on Saturday 29th. He made his statement more precise explaining that, on the eve of the extraordinary European Council summit, he had a dinner with the UK Prime Minister during which he expressed mounting alarm that she and her team are in a dangerous state of denial about the consequences of leaving the bloc. “I’m leaving Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before”.

Theresa May, who is actually leading an election campaign to gain legitimacy to negotiate, killed two birds with one stone. By answering the President of the European Commission, she also campaigned for the Conservative party. “In order to get the best deal for Britain, we need to ensure that we’ve got that strong and stable leadership going into those negotiations”.

The EU puts Brexit ball in the UK’s court. What will happen next? Only time will tell.

Chloé LOURENÇO

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