The EU tells the bare truth to the UK that there is no such thing as easy divorces

theresa-may-daniel-tusk-2016-downing-street

President TUSK – tour of EU capitals ahead of the Bratislava Summit. President Tusk meets British Prime Minister Theresa May. From left to right: Ms Theresa MAY, UK Prime Minister; Mr Donald TUSK, President of the European Council. Shoot location: London – UNITED KINGDOM. Shoot date: 08/09/2016. Copyright: European Union

Post Brexit vote, the British leaders have rather been adamant in saying that there will be no mixed solutions and in-betweens ahead: “Brexit” will mean nothing else than “Brexit”. Last week, Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told the world that EU leaders are determined not only to follow that line, but also that the ride could be bumpier than Britain expects. While on a radio interview with the BBC on Friday, Mr. Muscat indeed warned the UK that the EU is “not bluffing” and might have opened the pandora box for extremely tough negotiations.

The background

The UK has decided to leave the European Union in a referendum on June 23, with a very narrow majority backing the “Leave” vote. Since then, there has been wide speculation on how and when the British government would be able to trigger the Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union to then officially launch the exit negotiations with the EU.

Article 50 indeed is the one that allows a Member State to withdraw from the Union “in accordance with its own constitutional requirements”, with a notification to the European Council of its intention, which obliges the EU to negotiate a “withdrawal agreement” with that state. The British Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly said that she will trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty before the end of March next year, to then initiate the two-year negotiation process to leave the 28-nation bloc.

“Complicated” negotiations

In his BBC interview last Friday, the Maltese Premier Joseph Muscat said that Britain will hardly be in a position to trigger Article 50 by the deadline that May commits to, and that all negotiations around the Article would necessarily be “complicated”. Mr. Muscat, whose country takes over the EU’s rotating presidency in January, told the BBC he would “not be surprised” if the legal proceedings around the possibilities of Article 50 being invoked resulted in a delayed and “complicated” process.

Three-tier approach

The 27 remaining members of the EU are indeed likely to take a three-tier approach to drive talks with Britain, as revealed by Sky News on Friday. The UK will firstly have to agree on how much money it will pay for London to leave the bloc, and will then have to settle its EU border arrangements, with a special mention to the question of the border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

“Only after those two areas have been resolved, that third negotiation will start – which is what type of new relationship will there be between the UK and the European Union”, Mr. Muscat said. Maltese PM also underlined the message that Britain could not expect to limit freedom of movement and retain some form of single market membership.

No soft divorce

Mr Muscat wanted to be openly dismissive of any possibility that a kind of “soft divorce” with Britain could be put in place, with better conditions for the almost ex-EU member than it currently has. “We are all going to lose something but there will not be a situation where the UK has a better deal than it has now. It’s simply not going to happen”, he clearly said. “There is absolutely no bluffing from the EU side […] saying ‘we will start in this position and then we will soften up’. No, this is really and truly our position and it will not change”, he added, as quoted by the Guardian.

May’s government

These are definitely not great news for Theresa May’s government, whose key representatives like Boris Johnson and UK’s Brexit Secretary David Davis have met with EU parliamentarians last week to discuss the terms of the Brexit. Mr. Muscat’s comments came only days after Davis described his meeting with the European Parliament’s chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt as a “good start”.

But despite all those grey clouds looming over Downing Street, the spokesperson of May’s cabinet told reporters that the Prime Minister remained “confident” of being able to trigger article 50 as planned, and that negotiations were being approached in the “spirit of goodwill”. “The aim of that negotiation is to get the best possible deal for Britain, for British companies to access and work with and within the single market and for European businesses to have the same access here”, the Downing Street spokesman underlined. “This is a negotiation that will take place next year and the government will set out its negotiating strategy in the fullness of time,” he added.

Bumpy road ahead

The moment is by all means critical for Theresa May’s government. There’s no doubt that it will take too long for any kind of negotiation, but respecting the deadline her government has set could not be the only problem. Forging new trade relations with the EU will be very difficult, to begin with. The EU-Canada trade deal (CETA) took over seven years to complete, and there are reports that show that a UK-EU deal could take no less than five years to see the light.

Germany is apparently pushing for a comprehensive EU trade deal with Britain to minimise own economy fallout, but it will very hardly simplify things for Britain to a level where protocols are breached. The bailout could also be expensive. The Economist reports that in Brussels there are talks of an exit bill for Britain as big as €60bn.

Legal uncertainty

There’s also serious uncertainty around possible legal “battles” over whether the UK stays inside the single market after it has left the EU that is currently dominating the UK’s top news media. As published by the BBC only yesterday, lawyers see huge uncertainty over the UK’s European Economic Area (EEA) membership, which is something that could stop ministers from taking Britain out of the single market.

Indeed the legal investigation that will likely become a significant topic in the UK will be around the fact that June’s referendum asked British voters a question over whether the UK should leave the EU, but did not touch any kind of future economic access at all. Big challenges on whether the UK could (or should) remain in the EEA will surely follow, which is something that will make the conversation with the EU even more complex and lengthy.

Now both sides, the EU and the UK, are taking up hard-line positions as the time for real negotiations to start is coming closer, and it’s more than ever clear the conversation will be tough. Maltese PM Muscat, who is due to become a very influential figure during the next presidency of the EU, next year, suggested that even when a final or interim deal is cut between EU leaders and Britain, the European Parliament may decide to veto it in 2019, “at the very end of the process”.

This would be an ice-cold shower that the UK can’t definitely afford to take, although May’s government should start thinking that there will be no space for a “soft Brexit”, as much as it’s true that there is no such thing as easy divorces.

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