May to launch Brexit talks on March 29

Financial Times Middle East - - Front Page - ALEX BARKER AND JIM BRUNSDEN BRUS­SELS GE­ORGE PARKER — LON­DON

Amer­i­can Vogue re­leased por­traits of Theresa May, UK prime min­is­ter, yes­ter­day, pho­tographed for the magazine by An­nie Lei­bovitz.

The pictures came as Sir Tim Bar­row, Bri­tain’s am­bas­sador to the EU, an­nounced that Mrs May would for­mally launch ne­go­ti­a­tions for the UK’s exit from the bloc on March 29, trig­ger­ing a two-year di­vorce process.

Sir Tim told Don­ald Tusk, EU Coun­cil pres­i­dent, of the prime min­is­ter’s in­ten­tion. Mr Tusk said he would present “draft Brexit guide­lines” to the re­main­ing 27 mem­bers of the EU within 48 hours of re­ceiv­ing for­mal no­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Sir Tim told British MPs it was “time to get on” with the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Theresa May’s govern­ment yes­ter­day set March 29 as the date for for­mal no­ti­fi­ca­tion of the start of the two-year Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions, so end­ing a pe­riod dur­ing which the rest of the EU could do lit­tle more than watch.

David Davis, the UK’s Brexit sec­re­tary, said the move would ini­ti­ate the most im­por­tant ne­go­ti­a­tion for his coun­try for a gen­er­a­tion, with the govern­ment aim­ing to se­cure“a new, pos­i­tive part­ner­ship”be­tween the UK and the EU.

Brexit is sched­uled to take place by March 29 2019 un­less all mem­ber states agree to ex­tend di­vorce talks. But the other 27 mem­bers of the bloc are hence­forth set to have much more con­trol over the tim­ing and struc­ture of the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

In the wake of the UK’s vote last June to leave, se­nior EU of­fi­cials were con­vinced Bri­tain would refuse to trig­ger the for­mal di­vorce process be­cause of the tac­ti­cal draw­backs of work­ing to a two-year dead­line.

In­stead, they ex­pected Lon­don to try to first ne­go­ti­ate exit terms, then in­voke Ar­ti­cle 50 for only a“ju­ridi­cal minute ”.

In Lon­don trig­ger­ing Ar­ti­cle 50 be­came a po­lit­i­cal bat­tle cry for Brex­iters wor­ried about back­track­ing from leav­ing the EU. By con­trast, of­fi­cials in Brus­sels were con­cerned the UK would side­step the clause — a prin­ci­pal rea­son for the EU’s un­com­pro­mis­ing mantra of “no ne­go­ti­a­tion with­out no­ti­fi­ca­tion ”.

“The [EU-27 lead­ers] un­der­stood that their strong­est chip is time pres­sure,” said one of the prin­ci­pal fig­ures in­volved in EU B rex it prepa­ra­tions .“They did not want to give that away .”

The EU’s next at­tempt to max­imise its lever­age will be through its guide­lines for Brexit, which lay out the bloc’s pri­or­i­ties for talks. This pub­lic doc­u­ment is ex­pected to be adopted by EU-27 lead­ers in late April or early May. Although its con­tent will de­pend on Mrs May’s no­ti­fi­ca­tion let­ter, some re­cent drafts run to around six pages, ac­cord­ing to diplo­mats.

Much of the de­tail will be left to sep­a­rate, con­fi­den­tial ne­go­ti­at­ing guide­lines, which will take a fur­ther month to agree. But for some EU diplo­mats, the re­lease of the pub­lic guide­lines will be a crit­i­cal mo­ment. “This is our best chance to sober up the Brits,” said one se­nior EU diplo­mat from an an­glophile north­ern state.

One of the main pos­si­ble causes of ten­sion is EU of­fi­cials’ push to de­lay talks on a fu­ture trade deal un­til Bri­tain has agreed prin­ci­ples on an exit bill of some €60bn and the rights of EU migrants.

“It’s the British po­si­tion that the ne­go­ti­a­tion for leav­ing and the ne­go­ti­a­tion for a fu­ture ar­range­ment will hap­pen in par­al­lel, whereas it was the Euro­pean po­si­tion up to now that this would be se­quenced,” said Michael Noo­nan, the Ir­ish fi­nance min­is­ter. “That dif­fer­ence has to be over­come.”

Some EU of­fi­cials strike a more un­com­pro­mis­ing line. “What people are wor­ried about is that the talks could drag on and on and on,” said Jo­han Van Overtveldt, Bel­gium’s fi­nance min­is­ter. “Even those who don’t want to pun­ish the UK will be very care­ful not to give Bri­tain too good a deal.”

Michel Barnier, the EU’ s chief ne­go­tia­tor, wants mem­ber states to bol­ster his hand by is­su­ing a di­rec­tive that cov­ers only the exit bill and cit­i­zens’ rights. When for­mal talks start in late May or June, Mr Barnier could then say talks on trade were sim­ply be­yond his man­date, ac­cord­ing to EU of­fi­cials.

Such tac­tics may open up the first cracks in EU-27 unity. Some mem­ber states and even some Euro­pean Com­mis­sion of­fi­cials are less con­cerned about the exit bill and would not want the di­vorce to poi­son fu­ture EU-UK ties.

Bri­tain is bank­ing on Mr Barnier be­ing over­ruled. Mr Davis claims there is “slight schizophre­nia” on the EU side: “Most of them, nearly all of them, are sym­pa­thetic [to the UK case for par­al­lel talks] but there will be an is­sue of not break­ing the sol­i­dar­ity of 27.”

Mats Pers­son, a for­mer Down­ing Street ad­viser now ad­vis­ing on trade for EY, noted an emerg­ing “mis­match in per­cep­tions” that could kill the process.

“Nei­ther side is think­ing the other would ever risk a no-deal sce­nario be­cause of dam­age to trade, fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity and geopol­i­tics ,” he said.

“In re­al­ity there are play­ers on both sides who are gen­uinely con­tem­plat­ing this op­tion.”

An­nie Lei­bovitz/Vogue

Michel Barnier: EU chief ne­go­tia­tor wants to fo­cus on the exit bill and cit­i­zens’ rights rather than trade

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