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Europe

EU and UK start thorny Brexit negotiations in Brussels

© Emmanuel Dunand/Ben Stansall, AFP | EU Brexit negotiations chief Michel Barnier (L) and British representative David Davis (R).

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2017-06-19

The European Union and Britain on Monday started formal talks to separate after 44 years of UK membership, with Prime Minister Theresa May entering negotiations in a position weakened by her country's recent general election.

Brexit Secretary David Davis and the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier kicked off talks in Brussels on Monday that will set the terms on which Britain walks away from the bloc and determine its relationship with the continent for generations to come.

"On Brexit, we will be neither 'hard', nor 'soft', but amicable and firm," the EU's Economic and Financial Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici told the French weekly Journal du Dimanche. "All the scenarios are on the table, including that of no agreement on March 29, 2019. But this is not the one we prefer."

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson struck an optimistic tone, forecasting a positive outcome for both sides. “I think the whole process will lead to a happy resolution which can be done with honour and profit to both sides," he said during a visit to Luxembourg.

The negotiations start almost a year to the day since Britons shocked themselves and their neighbours by voting on June 23 to cut loose from their main trading partner. They also come nearly three months since PM May locked them into a two-year countdown to Brexit that will end in March 2019.

The situation has dramatically changed in the past 12 months, when Brexiteers felt emboldened by the surprise results of the referendum.

Worried by immigration and loss of sovereignty, Britain voted last year to end its four-decades-old membership of the 28-country bloc – the first state ever to do so – in a historic popular vote.

May’s entire approach has nevertheless been called into question after a disastrous election performance on June 8, in which she called for a snap general election only to lose her party’s majority in parliament.

As the UK’s Davis and the EU’s Barnier meet in Brussels starting at 0900 GMT almost nothing about the future of Britain or the continent is clear.

‘Hard exit’ in doubt

Britain already appears to have capitulated to the EU's insistence that talks first focus on three key divorce issues, before moving onto the future EU-UK relationship and a possible trade deal.

Those issues are Britain's exit bill, estimated by Brussels at around €100 billion, the rights of three million EU nationals living in Britain and one million Britons on the continent, and the status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

May's government has developed a strategy of so-called "hard Brexit": leaving the European single market and the customs union in order to control immigration from the EU.

Finance minister Philip Hammond confirmed Sunday that it was still the plan to quit the customs union and single market. But he warned that "we need to get there via a slope, not via a cliff edge".

May is meanwhile facing growing opposition at home to the “hard Brexit” approach, and her threats to walk away without a deal. Hammond himself and others have this month echoed calls by businesses for a softer approach.

Revived optimism

May’s earlier warning that she would walk away without a deal rather than accept “a bad deal” have worried European capitals.

Many in Brussels fear that London has no real strategy, with May under pressure at home, still trying to close a deal with a conservative Northern Ireland party to stay in power, and facing criticism for her handling of the aftermath of a devastating tower block fire.

EU officials are resisting British demands for immediate talks on a future free trade arrangement. They insist that should wait until an outline agreement on divorce terms, ideally by the end of this year.

But European Union leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, are also determined not to make concessions to Britain that might encourage others to follow its example.

When 52 percent of British voters opted for Brexit, some feared for the survival of a EU battered by the Euro crisis and divided in its response to chaotic immigration.

The election of the fervently europhile Macron, and his party’s sweep of the French parliament on Sunday, has revived optimism in Brussels.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

Date created : 2017-06-19

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