Brevity and unity are EU’s message to Britain

by John Wyles | 30.04.2017

The European Council was out to make a simple but vital point on Saturday by adopting in less than 15 minutes the guidelines for negotiating the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.  It may have recalled the Soviet era to one Tory tabloid, but the round of self-congratulatory applause that followed from the 27 leaders was both a celebration of unity and a statement of determination.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel speculated afterwards that British negotiating tactics would aim at demolishing this unity. He may have this on good authority: British diplomats have been unusually indiscreet in acknowledging that this will be central to their strategy. Some British commentators want to believe this will work.

Unity in the EU is never guaranteed but member states have committed to abstain from talking separately to the British either on withdrawal arrangements or the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Informal exchanges are inevitable but any attempt to divide and rule would jeopardise ratification of an eventual agreement, especially by the European Parliament.

Saturday’s solidarity was an achievement for European Council President Donald Tusk. The final version of the guidelines was very close to Tusk’s original draft unveiled at the end of March, adding mostly clarifications, though it did include significant novelties.

The EU now affirms its determination that the negotiations should be “conducted in transparency” – rebuffing the British government’s preference for secrecy.  Safeguarding the rights and status of EU citizens in the UK has become a “first priority” and the text spells out that this should include a guaranteed right to acquire permanent residence after five continuous years in the UK.

The guidelines make clear the negotiations are so complex that completing them by the effective deadline of autumn 2018 will be a huge challenge. The Union’s priorities for the first phase are the UK’s  exit payments (the much touted €60 billion), the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and future arrangements for the border between Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. Only after these are settled can talks begin on the framework of the future EU-UK relationship.

A strong sense in Brussels that the British are both deluded and ill-prepared was heightened by Theresa May’s brashness at dinner in Downing Street last Wednesday with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier. According to the Financial Times, she demanded a full trade deal by 2019 in return for an exit payment.  This runs counter to the sequencing in the EU guidelines and does not reflect the reality that such major trade negotiations will be far more protracted.

May’s campaign mantra that a large Conservative majority will strengthen her hand in the negotiations is true only in the sense that she may gain more room for manoeuvre with her party.  The “orderly withdrawal” that all sides want will require transition arrangements that would prolong Britain’s observance of EU rules, acceptance of the authority of the European Court of Justice, freedom of movement and continued payments to the Union’s budget for several years after Brexit.

These red lines for Brussels will not fade under any onslaught by a freshly-elected crusader in Downing Street. To believe otherwise because “they need a deal as much as we do” is an illusion. As outgoing French President Francois Hollande put it on Saturday, this is not a matter of punishing the UK, it is that the club will not tear up its rules for the benefit of any departing member.

May seems determined to play the victim to her domestic audience. Her comment on Chancellor Merkel’s speech was a first installment – the rest of the EU is “lining up to oppose us,” she said.  That notion sits oddly with the belief in Whitehall a “dysfunctional” Union will crack under pressure from skillful British negotiators.  Adversarial politics is a British speciality, and a British weakness.

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    Edited by Paul Taylor

    One Response to “Brevity and unity are EU’s message to Britain”

    • I am firmly on the side of the EU and have no time at all for this tragic situation which has arisen from Tory in-fighting.