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17th Nov 2018

EU gives mandate for Barnier to take on Brexit

  • Barnier (l), along with Belgium's foreign minister, Didier Reynders (c), and Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Aseelborn (r) (Photo: Council of the European Union)

EU ministers officially gave the green light to chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday (22 May) to start talks, and adopted the principles for discussing the UK's exit from the bloc.

This was the final preparatory move from the EU's side, which is ready to begin talks with London.

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"We are ready and well prepared, all structures are in place," Barnier said who on Monday received the mandate to negotiate on behalf of the EU 27.

The French politician added that he wanted talks to start on the week of 19 June, following the UK's general election on 8 June.

He said that he hoped to first report back to the leaders of member states during the EU summit on 22 and 23 June.

At the meeting, which Barnier described as a "milestone", ministers also signed off on the negotiating directives proposed by the European Commission – setting out the priorities of the EU-27.

The directives concern the first phase of talks, focused on the withdrawal agreement. Talks on the future relationship will require a separate set of directives.

The EU-27, which have been able to show a rarely-seen unified front on Brexit, want to safeguard the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK nationals in the EU, settle the financial obligations of the UK, and avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Only when "sufficient progress" is reached on these issues, will the EU-27 be willing to discuss the future relationship with London. It will be up to Barnier to assess whether that a critical mass of agreement has been reached, and propose to EU leaders to move forward.

UK prime minister Theresa May has been arguing that the future relationship needs to be discussed in parallel to the withdrawal agreement.

May's Conservative Party stated in their election manifesto that they would be willing to walk away without a deal if an agreement meant a bad deal for Britain.

No illusions

On Sunday, Brexit secretary David Davis said Britain will walk out of the talks unless Brussels drops its demand for €100 billion as to settle commitments already made to the EU budget but not paid yet, and if the bloc refuses to discuss trade until the exit is agreed.

"We don’t need to just look like we can walk away, we need to be able to walk away," Davis told The Sunday Times.

Depending on the final methodology of calculating what the UK's commitments mean in practice, the exit bill could be €100 billion in total.

EU officials have been stressing that a no deal scenario would hit the UK worst of all.

Speaking in Brussels on Monday, the German Europe minister, Michael Roth, warned that Brexit was a “lose-lose situation” for everyone.

Also on Monday, Barnier did not want to go into what would happen if talks were to break down in the beginning on disagreements over the sequencing of talks, or on the possible €100 billion exit bill.

"To succeed for the future relationship, we need to succeed in the first phase," Barnier told reporters on Monday.

"We will need to make sufficient progress to move to phase two as quickly as we can, by end of this year, early next year the latest," he added.

A working group made up of experts and diplomats from the member states will fine-tune the EU-27's negotiating positions, which will then be made public.

The 18-page document, adopted on Monday, also sets out the cut-off date – when the UK will automatically drop out of the EU, unless there is a unanimous agreement of the 27 member states to continue the talks.

The UK will leave the EU by 30 March 2019, midnight at the latest, and the road leading up to that day will be difficult.

"We are under no illusion that negotiations will be complex and far from straight forward," admitted Malta's deputy prime minister, Louis Grech, whose country holds the Council of the EU's rotating presidency.

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May promises hard Brexit in Tory manifesto

In her party's platform ahead of the 8 June elections, the British prime minister has asked voters to let her negotiate Brexit without guaranteeing a final deal.

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