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Brexit Is No Priority, the Future of EU Is

Published on , , Twitter: @euinside
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The debate (on May 17) on the occasion of the adoption of the EU's negotiating position on Britain’s exit was a good time for political group leaders to announce the end of populism. The first one to do that was EPP Group leader Manfred Weber (EPP), followed by others, some of whom were more cautious. The messages of Brussels to London and populists in general were that populism has severe consequences, that the UK does not have much time to negotiate, that the EU is united and well prepared, and that for the Union Brexit is not a priority as the EU has a much more important work – building its own future. Several important things have happened since our last text on the subject, which outlined a very serious issue even before the negotiations with the UK began - lack of trust. 

The first important event was the approval by the European Council's of negotiating guidelines. On April 29, the leaders of the remaining 27 members approved the document for a record-breaking time of less than four minutes. European Council President Donald Tusk (Poland, EPP) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg, EPP) in all of their appearances stressed on this in order to demonstrate that the EU is well prepared. "It was the first and the last time that we were able to conclude in 4 minutes", Juncker said after the brief meeting, during which all, without discussion, put their signature under the document drawn up in the weeks before. "I have the impression sometimes that our British friends, not all of them, do underestimate the technical difficulties we have to face", he said. 

Later, in front of the European Parliament, Donald Tusk warned that the time for finalising the negotiations on the UK withdrawal provided for in the EU Treaties (two years) is very short. "Time is of the essence here, and much is at stake", he said while reporting on April 29 European Council's outcome April 29.

Leaders' guidelines do not differ significantly from what euinside published prior to the summit. They emphasise on the negotiations being divided into two phases. The first is to negotiate the exit framework, with the two most important priorities being to settle the status of EU citizens in the UK and British ones in the EU, as well as settle the financial accounts. Only when satisfactory progress is achieved at this stage can the negotiation of future trade relations with the UK commence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was clear after the summit that the division between the first and the second phase should be very clear. Future trade relations will be determined by geopolitical challenges, she said, adding that, in order to move on to the second phase, it would be nice for the EU to have more clarity about what the Brits really want in order to grant their wishes.

Then, on May 3rd, the European Commission dressed the leaders' guidelines into an institutional shape. During the presentation of the recommendation for negotiating positions, EU Chief Negotiator with Britain, Michel Barnier (France), sent a message to populists saying that some create the illusion that the Brexit will have no material implications on the lives of everyone, or that negotiations can end quickly and painlessly. "This is not the case [...] There are human, social, economic, technical, financial, legal consequences. You are unwinding 43 years or so of a relationship. That’s why you cannot do things in 15-16 months or so", said Mr Barnier. He recalled that 10 months have passed since the referendum. These are ten months of uncertainty, he said. "I'll start negotiations as soon as UK is ready. The clock is ticking. We will wait, we will listen very carefully to what the British are putting on the table. Time is short. It's very short”, was his message. 

The minutes of the College meeting, when the recommendation for negotiating positions was approved, reveal the Union's biggest concerns. The first is that it is possible that the negotiations on the settlement of the financial accounts will lead to a failure of the entire negotiation process and, respectively, to the so-called hard Brexit, that is, without an agreement. The European Council insists that the financial deal should cover all financial relations between the EU and the UK so far. This means not only the general EU budget, but also the financial commitments related to the European Investment Bank, the European Central Bank, the European Development Fund, the Turkey Refugee Fund. The Union wants the financial commitment to cover the current 2014-2020 multi-annual financial framework of the Union to the end.

According to Mr Barnier, however, this will be one of the most difficult points in the negotiations, as it is unclear exactly when Britain will leave. De jure membership ends at midnight on March 29, 2019, but if transitional periods are agreed this period may be extended. Michel Barnier warns members of the College that if no agreement is reached on this point, there is a real risk of failure of the entire negotiation process. This will be bad for the EU, as the 27 have made it clear that neither of them wants to either bring more money into the budget or get less. He recommends that the emphasis in the negotiations on this topic be placed on the methodology for calculating the financial commitments of the UK. 

It is also clear from the minutes that the Commission expects several more problems to emerge. One of them is how to explain the process of withdrawal in the simplest possible way so that people can understand what is going on and avoid giving the populists the opportunity to say untrue things. The problem, however, is that the negotiation process is quite technical. Another expected issue is the growing support among British public opinion of the idea of disorderly departure, that is, without an agreement. It is recommended that the EU takes this into account when conducting the negotiations.

The possibility of delays in adopting the mid-term review of the EU's multi-annual budget, which is currently blocked by the UK, was also discussed. The issue of the rights of nearly 4 million citizens living in the UK and the EU will also be a problem, as the Union urges European citizens to benefit until the very day of departure of the United Kingdom from all the benefits they enjoy today. This affects not only citizens who are currently in the UK, but also those who lived there before, and those who are yet to go (before the Brexit).

Michel Barnier foresees the following negotiation schedule: firstly, agreement is reached on the principles of an orderly exit - negotiating citizens' rights, resolving financial issues and resolving the border issue between Ireland and Northern Ireland - between October and December of this year. Tentatively, then begins the second phase, namely negotiating the framework for future relations and possibly transitional arrangements. This is expected to happen between December and spring of 2018. Finalisation of the exit agreement is expected to take place around October next year, leaving 6 months for the process of ratification by all members. 

The chief negotiator suggests that negotiations be organised in four-week cycles. The first week to define preparatory work on the position of the 27 with the participation of the European Parliament. The second week is to exchange documents with the UK, the third for real negotiations, and the fourth to report the results to the member states and the European Parliament and to prepare for the next round of negotiations. Michel Barnier warns that the EU should insist on the phased approach, otherwise it risks jeopardising the negotiations. 

On May 22, the Council of Ministers endorsed the recommendation and is now waiting for the UK parliamentary elections to be held on June 8 in order to begin negotiations. Michel Barnier expressed hope that this could happen on June 19th. "I wish I could give my first report to the European Council on June 22 - exactly one year after the date of the referendum and less than 3 months after Ms May's notification", he said.

A deficit of trust

The thing that drew attention in all the important steps of the Brexit was the constant thrust of the need for transparency. The reason can be found in the apparent lack of trust between Brussels and London. "You cannot start negotiations in a climate of mistrust and uncertainty", Chief Negotiator Barnier said while presenting the EC's recommendation for negotiating positions. He also spoke extensively about this during the College on May 3, as published minutes show in the context of the fact that the phase approach in negotiations is particularly important for creating a solid foundation of trust between the two sides.

The lack of confidence is also evident in Donald Tusk's words from April 29 that the EU needs "real guarantees for our people to live, work and study in the UK, and the same goes for the British". He said that in order for sufficient progress to be made so that the second phase of the negotiations could begin, a "serious British response" is needed. This unambiguously suggests that at this stage what is coming from London is not taken seriously. In general, Brussels is condescending to this and is explaining it with pre-election fever. On the other hand, however, the Union reacted hostile to Britain's attempts to bring discourse in the Union. That's why the truly unique unity of the 27 in terms of the Brexit was repeatedly emphasised on.

"That unity is important for the EU of the 27, but it is also important for the UK. The UK will not be able to conclude an agreement with the 27 if the 27 are not united", said Jean-Claude Juncker. The topic of unity comes in the context of the unexpected surprise coming from the British prime minister of EU unity, which she describes as directed against the UK instead of what it really is - defending the European interest. Of unity also speaks British MEP Nigel Farage, who is at the core of the Brexit, basing his campaign on misinformation about the EU. During the debate on May 17th, he accused the Commission of leaking details of the dinner between President Juncker and British Prime Minister Theresa May, which led to Angela Merkel's famous statement that the British government is delusional.

The development of the negotiation process forced Nigel Farage to seek a new narrative and new argumentation. He went to agreeing with former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis that the EU cannot be negotiated with and that negotiations with the Union mean crushing democracy in the victim country.

The Brexit is a marginal subject

Beyond the verbal exchange that British Conservative MEP James Nicholson described as "megaphone diplomacy across the English Channel", the EU made it quite clear that to it the Brexit is a marginal subject. President Tusk said he agrees with the negotiator on behalf of the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE, Belgium), that the future of the EU must be the top priority, not Brexit. This is also the opinion of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said after the summit in April that the EU should not forget that there are other problems. "The world is going to develop further. The Rome agenda, the agenda of Bratislava is just as important as the negotiations on Britain leaving the EU, so this shouldn’t keep us from shaping our own future and we have to do this together", she said. 

In the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt pointed out that the EU should not make the mistake of putting all its energy into the Brexit. "At least the same energy, if not more energy, has to be put into the reform and the future of the European Union", he said, adding that up until now three nationalists and populists have been defeated -  in Austria, the Netherlands and France, and that this is no coincidence, according to him. He interprets this as a demonstration by citizens of their reluctance to leave the EU. "They say: reform the European Union, yes; leave the European Union, no bloody way. That is the message of the people of the European Union today", he said.

This was also the main topic of the debate, which lasted for an hour and a half on 17 May. Many MEPs discussed the announcement of the end of populism by Manfred Weber. Guy Verhofstadt warned that it would be a mistake to assume that populism and nationalism had been defeated. "People voted for Macron for change and not for the status quo; not for a standstill. They voted for a radical change in France, but also in Europe", he said. Philip Lamberts (Greens/EFA, Belgium) also called for the right lessons to be drawn from the Brexit. He agreed that truly populism had been defeated in Austria, the Netherlands and France, but the point is not to contain it, but to eliminate the reasons for it.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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