Tough talks get Brexit under way
Britain weakened after poll
BRITAIN and the EU began talks to sever their 43-year partnership, starting unprecedented divorce negotiations that will shape future relations between them.
Discussions began with an immediate concession from the British over how the talks will be structured, a display of the weakness of the British position in the face of an unusual degree of unity among the EU’s 27 remaining members.
British politics were thrown into turmoil after voters narrowly decided just short of a year ago to leave the EU, long a source of lovehate angst in British politics.
The move toppled one leader and may be close to toppling a second, British Prime Minister Theresa May, after a crippling election earlier this month in which her Conservatives lost their majority.
Despite sharp splits in London over what to seek in the divorce, the lead British negotiator vowed that his nation would plunge onward with a full declaration of independence, dampening expectations after the election that Britain would now move to preserve some ties with Brussels.
“Today marks the start of a journey for the United Kingdom and for the European Union,” the British minister charged with negotiating the deal, David Davis, said on Monday after a day of meetings with his EU negotiating counterpart, Michel Barnier.
“There’s no doubt that the road ahead will at times be challenging.”
The Brexit victory shocked even backers of the measure and unleashed a wave of nationalism and populism that was seen as helping to sweep Donald Trump into the White House.
But British society has remained deeply divided about the meaning of the Brexit vote and the extent to which leaders should pull out of wide-ranging relationships that have delivered prosperity and frustration to generations of British citizens.
Speaking alongside Davis, Barnier offered a grave outlook about what lies ahead.
“The United Kingdom has asked to leave the European Union, it’s not the other way around,” said Barnier, speaking in French, a decision that itself is a measure of Britain’s waning influence in Europe.
“The consequences are substantial,” he said. But he added that the EU approach to Britain will not be “about punishment, it’s not about revenge”.
European leaders have repeatedly said that Britain need not go through with its plans for divorce – although they have been tough about what a split would mean if it happens.
Barnier, a veteran French politician, has been vested by the EU to enforce their no-compromise red lines that any deal for Britain must not be more favourable than the one it has as a full member.
His first victory came on Monday, when he forced Britain to accept the EU timetable for the talks: first a negotiation over the split, and only then a discussion about the future relationship between the two sides.
Britain had sought for the talks to proceed in parallel, a structure that would have given London more bargaining power. The issues at stake are daunting. Unresolved is everything from the status of EU citizens living in Britain, to intelligence sharing, to the future of tens of thousands of British jobs that could be wiped out if businesses move to Europe to avoid new trade barriers.
So far, European leaders have remained united that Britain cannot have full access to European markets unless it also allows full access to its own.
European demands for British restitution have also increased, from $67 billion a few months ago to $112bn now, a measure of the degree of EU toughening against May.
May herself is a deeply weakened leader who was badly damaged after the parliamentary elections this month swept away her Conservative majority.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, left, with the British Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis.