Brexit min­is­ter starts EU talks amid in­fight­ing ru­mours

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD -

BRUS­SELS: Britain’s Brexit min­is­ter vowed to “get down to work” as he started a first full round of ne­go­ti­a­tions yes­ter­day. But a year af­ter Bri­tons voted nar­rowly to quit the EU, their govern­ment still seemed at odds over what it wants.

“It’s time to get down to work and make this a suc­cess­ful ne­go­ti­a­tion,” vet­eran anti-EU cam­paigner David Davis said as he was wel­comed to the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion by the Euro­pean Union’s chief ne­go­tia­tor Michel Barnier for four days of talks.

But back in Lon­don, Bri­tish me­dia were rife with talk of in­fight­ing that echoed the di­vi­sions Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May’s Con­ser­va­tive party suf­fered dur­ing the EU ref­er­en­dum. For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son, at­tend­ing a dif­fer­ent meet­ing in Brus­sels, passed up an op­por­tu­nity to deny that was the case.

His backing was seen as vi­tal for the 52% to 48% per­cent vic­tory of the Leave camp in June last year. Asked point blank yes­ter­day if the cab­i­net was “split on Brexit”, John­son sim­ply said he was pleased ne­go­ti­a­tions had be­gun and then de­fended the of­fer May has made to pro­tect the rights of EU cit­i­zens in Britain.

Strug­gling for author­ity af­ter los­ing her ma­jor­ity last month in an elec­tion she did not need to call, May faces ques­tions in­side her party on whether she can ex­er­cise con­trol. That is wor­ry­ing EU ne­go­tia­tors, who stress that 20 months un­til Brexit is very lit­tle time to ne­go­ti­ate an or­derly di­vorce.

Fi­nance Min­is­ter Philip Ham­mond, who like May cam­paigned last year to keep Britain in the EU, said on Sun­day he be­lieved most of his cab­i­net col­leagues now backed the idea of hav­ing two years or more of a tran­si­tion pe­riod af­ter Brexit in March 2019 – to soften the dis­rup­tive ef­fect on so­ci­ety and the econ­omy.

That had not been the case a month ago, Ham­mond said. That was a re­minder of a gulf in per­cep­tions across the Chan­nel where EU lead­ers have as­sumed from the out­set that Britain would need more than the two years al­lowed by treaty to ne­go­ti­ate the deal it wants to re­tain close, open trad­ing links with the con­ti­nent.

Ham­mond ac­cused un­named col­leagues of brief­ing against him to try to un­der­mine what is seen as his push for a “soft Brexit” that would pri­ori­tise trade rather than hard­lin­ers’ de­mands for con­trols on EU im­mi­gra­tion or an end to EU le­gal over­sight.

Trade Min­is­ter Liam Fox, who favours a cleaner break with the EU, said on Sun­day he could live with a tran­si­tion – dur­ing which it is likely Britain would keep pay­ing a share of the EU bud­get and fol­low EU rules – as long as it was kept short. That is also the view in much of the EU, where lead­ers do not want to see Britain given an in­def­i­nite half-in, half-out sta­tus.

Di­vi­sions over such ba­sic is­sues of the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions could raise the risk again of a fail­ure to reach a deal. That would see huge un­cer­tainty for busi­nesses and mil­lions of peo­ple across Europe as Britain would sim­ply be out of the bloc on March 30, 2019 with no clear rules on what that should mean.

Lon­don and Brus­sels have taken ini­tial ne­go­ti­at­ing po­si­tions say­ing they are ready for such an out­come.

How­ever, Gus O’Don­nell, Britain’s for­mer top civil ser­vant, said the chances of a smooth Brexit were at risk. “It ap­pears that cab­i­net mem­bers haven’t yet fin­ished ne­go­ti­at­ing with each other, never mind the EU,” he said.

PIC­TURE: REUTERS

Bri­tish Sec­re­tary of State for Brexit, David Davis, left, is wel­comed by the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion’s Chief Brexit Ne­go­tia­tor, Michel Barnier, in Brus­sels yes­ter­day.

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