EU leaders issue tough response to Britain’s divorce demands

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 March, 2017, 6:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 31 March, 2017, 10:40pm

The European Union demanded on Friday that Britain make “sufficient progress” on its divorce before talks on a trade deal can start as it laid out its tough Brexit negotiating plans.

EU president Donald Tusk ruled out an immediate start to parallel talks, as demanded by British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday in her letter triggering the historic two-year Brexit process.

Tusk’s draft negotiating guidelines add that the other 27 countries are ready for a transitional deal after Britain’s exit in 2019, but that any such arrangement must be under strict EU rules.

Former Polish premier Tusk said it was his “first divorce and I hope the last one”, adding that while he hoped it would not be confrontational the EU would stick to its principles during the talks.

“The EU 27 does not and will not pursue a punitive approach. Brexit itself is already punitive enough,” he told a news conference in the Maltese capital Valletta as he revealed his plans.

The EU is keen to stress its ­unity as it faces the departure of one of its biggest members, the first time a country has left the bloc in its 60-year history.

Tusk’s guidelines will now be sent out to the leaders of the 27 ­remaining EU countries, which will suggest changes ahead of a special summit in Brussels to ­approve the plans on April 29.

Germany and France had ­already set out a united stance against May’s demands.

“Starting parallel talks on all issues at the same time as suggested by some in the UK will not ­happen,” Tusk said. “Once and only once we have achieved sufficient progress on the withdrawal can we discuss the framework for our future relationship.”

The guidelines say that the EU called for a “phased approach” that reduces the disruption caused by Britain’s departure in March 2019.

The fate of three million EU citizens living in Britain and one million British people within the bloc’s 27 other nations is at the top of leaders’ agenda. Other issues are the “exit bill” Britain will have to pay, estimated to be as much as 60 billion (HK$500 billion), and the border between Northern ­Ireland and Ireland.

“[EU leaders] will monitor ­progress closely and determine when sufficient progress has been achieved to allow negotiations to proceed to the next phase” on a future relationship, the draft guidelines say. A decision on that could come by the end of this year, a senior EU official said.

The EU said that no trade deal can be agreed on before Brexit takes effect. But it is also open to a transitional arrangement after Brexit as a “bridge” to a future deal some years down the line if it was under EU rules and the European Court of Justice.

It will also prepare itself for the possibility that negotiations fail.

Chief EU negotiator, France’s Michel Barnier, is expected to get the green light to start talks with Britain on May 22, an official said.

May formally notified the EU of Britain’s intention to leave in a letter to Tusk on Monday.

In it, she warned that failure to clinch a deal on trade would affect Britain’s ­cooperation on terrorism. Tusk said he was sure “wise and decent” Britain would not do so.

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat called for the fate of EU citizens in Britain not to be used in the same way.

EU leaders hope to resolve divorce issues by the end of the year. That leaves 10 months before October 2018, when Barnier says the talks must wrap up to give time for the European Parliament and member states to approve what the negotiators come up with.

Britain has meanwhile started laying plans for the daunting task of bringing thousands of items of EU regulation into British law on the day that Britain leaves the EU.