BRITAIN, EU MILES APART ON BREXIT TALKS
British PM Theresa May seeks a quick break-up, but EU finds it impossible
NO one expects negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union to go smoothly over the next two years. But a German newspaper’s account of a dinner last Wednesday between British Prime Minister Theresa May and senior EU officials suggests that round one, at least, was particularly discordant.
On Sunday, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung ran an article, clearly leaked by officials in the European Commission, that described a considerable gulf between May, who called for a snap election on June 8, and JeanClaude Juncker, president of the commission, as well as the bloc’s chief negotiator on Britain’s exit, Michel Barnier.
According to the German newspaper and some from Britain, like The Sunday Times of London, Juncker came away believing that May was not just in “a state of denial”, but in “a different galaxy”, as he was said to have reported in an early morning telephone call the next day to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
The paper reported that May said at one point: “Let’s make Brexit a success”. Juncker was said to have replied, “Brexit cannot be a success”.
May was said to have called for working on a trade deal simultaneously with talks on Britain’s exit, arguing that since Britain is already a member and merely wants to leave, a trade deal should be much easier to complete.
Juncker somewhat theatrically dismissed the idea, reaching into his bag and pulling out two big stacks of paper: Croatia’s EU entry deal and Canada’s free-trade pact, all 2,250 pages of it.
The two sides also differed on the question of how much Britain will have to pay as part of the “divorce settlement”, with May reportedly saying it owes nothing because there is no mention of such payments in the European Union’s founding treaties.
Juncker was said to have replied that without a payment there would be no trade deal.
Merkel was concerned enough to issue a strong statement to the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, on Thursday, saying that Britain can work out a new relationship with the European Union only after it leaves.
“I must say this clearly here because I get the feeling that some people in Britain still have illusions — that would be wasted time,” she warned.
She added: “We can only do an agreement on the future relationship with Britain when all questions about its exit have been cleared up satisfactorily,” while pointing out that serious negotiations could not start until after the British elections in June.
The reports on Sunday were detailed enough — and one-sided enough — that officials at 10 Downing Street issued an official statement on Monday, a holiday in Britain, rejecting the German newspaper’s version.
“We do not recognise this account,” the statement said. “As the prime minister and JeanClaude Juncker made clear, this was a constructive meeting ahead of the negotiations formally getting underway.”
On Sunday, on television news talk shows, May acknowledged that the talks would be difficult, but said to the BBC: “I’m not in a different galaxy, but I think what this shows, and what some of the other comments we’ve seen coming from European leaders shows, is that there are going to be times when these negotiations are going to be tough.”
She insisted that Britain could secure a comprehensive trade deal with the EU alongside the divorce negotiations and complete everything in two years, with an “implementation period”.
Brussels officials regard that as unrealistic and point to the bloc’s Brexit negotiating guidelines, which mandate that talks on a future relationship can begin only after “sufficient progress” has been made on three major issues: guaranteeing the rights of citizens of EU member states living in Britain; settling the divorce bill; and safeguarding the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
May, who wants to resolve speedily the post-exit status of member-state citizens in Britain and British citizens in the bloc, suggested the issue could be settled at a summit meeting at the end of June. Juncker and his top officials considered the timetable unworkable given what they consider the complications of pensions, legal rights and the right to health care.
The issue is especially complicated because May wants the exit to end the jurisdiction in Britain of the European Court of Justice, but it is that court that settles legal disputes among member states.
Britain also wants complete secrecy for the negotiations, which Brussels believes violates the principle of transparency — and as the various newspaper accounts prove, leaks will be numerous in any case.
While the dinner was about opening stances in the talks, the gaps reportedly made Juncker more skeptical that a deal could be done in two years, before Britain leaves the bloc, making a “hard Brexit” more likely.
“I leave Downing Street 10 times as skeptical as I was before” about a deal, Juncker reportedly told May as he left the dinner.
According to the German newspaper and some from Britain, like ‘The Sunday Times’ of London, Juncker came away believing that May was not just in ‘a state of denial’, but in ‘a different galaxy’, as he was said to have reported to Chancellor Angela Merkel of
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May greeting European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker outside 10 Downing Street in London last month. Theresa May acknowledged on Tuesday that Brexit ‘will not be easy’, after EU officials accused Britain of underestimating the complexity of the task ahead.