EU27 leaders unite on Brexit Guidelines ahead of “tough negotiations” with Theresa May

Juncker-Tusk-Barnier

Special European Council (Art. 50), 29/04/2017 Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, Michel Barnier Date: 29/04/2017. Location: Brussels- Belgium. © European Union , 2017. Source: EC – Audiovisual Service

Last Saturday, the leaders of the European Union met for the first time after UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, officially opening the Brexit process, and Britain was not invited. The purpose of the EU27 special summit was indeed to discuss guidelines for divorce negotiations with the UK ahead of discussions with Theresa May, seeking to iron all differences that could emerge at a later stage. “Unity” was totally the key-word of the summit, as EU leaders know that they need one front to set the bloc’s priority before the start of negotiations with the UK on the main open points of the “EU27 era”.

Background

Days ago, the European Commission announced that European Union leaders were going to meet in Brussels on April’s last Saturday to discuss a joint strategy for negotiations with the UK over Brexit. “Following the United Kingdom’s notification of withdrawal from the European Union, we will meet on Saturday for the first time as the formal European Council of 27 to adopt guidelines for the upcoming Brexit negotiations”, European Council President Donald Tusk said in a letter to EU leaders last week. In a call for unity, President Tusk said an agreement on “people, money and Ireland” must “come first”, and that the EU has to be ready before negotiations on the EU’s future relationship with the UK.

Line-up

Just hours before President Tusk’s letter was published, on the other “front”, UK’s PM May declared she believes the other 27 EU countries were “lining up” to oppose Britain over Brexit. May’s comment came after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the UK should have “no illusions” over the exit process. “A third-party state will not have the same rights or even superior rights to a member state”, Chancellor Merkel told the German Parliament two days before the Saturday summit, causing some butterfly effect in Great Britain. “27 […] European countries line up to oppose us,” May told a campaign rally in Leeds, northern England, as reported by France 24. “That approach can only mean one thing – uncertainty and instability”, she also said.

Guideline approved

So Saturday came and, as expected, EU leaders have approved their negotiating principles for Britain’s exit from the EU as one solid bloc. In a show of unity, President Tusk tweeted that the “firm and fair political mandate” for the talks was ready, confirming that the 27 leaders have officially backed the European Council Guidelines for Brexit that were first issued on 31 March by him. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also tweeted his satisfaction, speaking of “unity in action”, after the EU 27 leaders have adopted the Article 50 Guidelines in less than 15 minutes.

Theresa May’s denial

British PM May, for her part, responded proudly to Brussel’s tough stance, and said on Sunday divorce talks with the European Union would be difficult. “What this shows, and what some of the other comments we’ve seen coming from European leaders shows, is that there are going to times when these negotiations are going to be tough,” Mrs. May told the BBC. Nevertheless, now that the cornerstones of the EU27’s negotiating stance are finalised, the Brexit discussion can start for real. Technically, the two sides will not start any conversation until the snap elections in Britain take place on June 8, but the main topics are already clearly on the table.

Irish “knot”

The discussion on the future status of Northern Ireland is more than ever hot, as a first point. A majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in last year’s UK referendum, but as part of the United Kingdom they will normally be forced to leave. The EU front has underlined on Saturday that resolving the thorny issue of the Irish border will be a top priority in the upcoming negotiations. The BBC reported on Saturday that Irish Prime Minister (the “Taoiseach”) Enda Kenny will likely ask his EU partners to back the idea of Northern Ireland automatically joining the EU if the province’s people vote to unite with the Republic, but still the discussion is open. The EU27 is likely to ask Theresa May’s government to avoid any “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Citizens’ rights

Another key issue to resolve for Brussels is surely the fate of all EU citizens living in the UK and the British expats living and working in the bloc. There’s some 3 million EU citizens living in Britain and approximately 1 million Britons living inside the bloc, and their rights to work, live, and study outside of their motherland is one of the most delicate questions. President Tusk has repeatedly said before the summit he wanted to put the matter before anything else, and he reinforced the message after Saturday’s meeting as well.
“Over the past weeks, we have repeatedly heard from our British friends, also during my visit in London, that they are ready to agree on this issue quickly,” he said, as reported by the BBC. “But I would like to state very clearly that we need real guarantees for our people to live, work and study in the UK – and the same goes for the Brits living on the European continent” he also added on Saturday.

Exit Bill

The exit bill is surely another thorny question. Days before Saturday’s summit EU leaders made it clear they will toughen their stance on Britain paying its exit bills as a condition to enter any negotiation. From Germany’s Merkel to EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, have stated unanimously that Britain must settle its bills before even starting any trade talks with Brussels. The first estimates by the European Commission to have circulated in the past months would see a bill of as much as €60 billion (£50+ bn) to be presented to the UK, covering financial commitments made by the bloc during Britain’s time as a member.

Although it seems that no substantial progress has been made during this very first EU27, post-Brexit summit on the exit bill question, senior EU diplomats have reinforced the message that the EU is determined to be quite firm about it. According to the Guardian, a senior EU source said that we can expect “a very ambitious position” from the EU27, as excluding tough exit bills at this stage would automatically cause issues when having other budget discussions in the future. Also, it is pretty clear that it is totally in Brussels’ interest to demonstrate that any exit operation from the bloc would be very costly.

Saturday’s special summit has clearly had more of a symbolic value than a practical grip, but this is likely Brussels’ objective. “We are ready…we are together”, as EU’s Chief negotiator Michel Barnier said right after the meeting, is all that the EU wanted to tell to Theresa May’s government.

Under the terms of the Guideline, Britain has until the end of March 2019 to exit the EU, even though the two sides have acknowledged the possibility of a transition period after 2019.

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