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4th Mar 2024

EU boasts unity on Brexit talks

  • "We now have unanimous support from all the 27 member states and the EU institutions", EU Council chief Donald Tusk (r) said alongside EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker. (Photo: Consilium)

EU leaders set out on Saturday (29 April) the bloc's priorities and red lines in the upcoming divorce talks with the UK.

It took them four minutes, over a duckling and lemon moelleux lunch, and amid a round of applause, to adopt the EU negotiating guidelines that had been prepared by their diplomats and ministers during the last month.

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  • "The consequences would be serious if France turned away from the EU," Hollande warned for his last summit ahead of next week's vote in France. (Photo: Consilium)

The document confirms the common line adopted by the EU 27 remaining states and EU institutions since British prime minister Theresa May sent her notification letter on 29 March.

The EU main negotiator, Michel Barnier, will have three priorities when talks starts after the 8 June UK elections: guarantee EU and UK citizens' rights, settle the UK's financial obligations to the EU and avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The guidelines also determine a two-phase process. "Sufficient progress" will have to be achieved on the three priorities before talks can start on the post-Brexit relationship between the EU and the UK.

May has so far insisted that the two negotiations take place at the same time.

On Wednesday (3 May), the European Commission will propose the negotiating mandate for Barnier, which should be adopted on 22 May by EU affairs ministers.

Show of unity

As the EU readies for battle for the first divorce talks in its history, all leaders emphasised their unity to face the UK.

"We now have unanimous support from all the 27 member states and the EU institutions, giving us a strong political mandate for these negotiations," European Council president Donald Tusk said after the meeting in Brussels.

"It was easier to keep them united than I expected," he insisted. "It is something very promising, it is the first time in our history."

"If someone expected that some divisions among the 27 would help the UK to achieve something better for them, it’s pure illusion,” he added.

"It is with this unity that Europe will preserve its interests," French president Francois Hollande said.

The show of EU unity since March led May to accuse the EU of "lining up against Britain".

"We have not allied against Great Britain," German chancellor Angela Merkel replied on Saturday.

She noted that she felt that "some people in UK have not really understood that it is clear" that no talks about the future will take place before progress over the divorce priorities has been made.

Technical difficulties

"We have to be disciplined enough to go step by step," she said, adding that Barnier and the European Commission hoped that they would conclude the first phase "in the autumn".

"It is too early to speculate on when this might happen," Tusk said however.

He insisted that the UK needed to offer "a serious response" to a list, prepared by the Commission, of rights and benefits that the EU wants to guarantee after Brexit for EU citizens who live in the UK as well as for UK citizens who reside in the EU.

"I want to assure you that as soon as the UK offers real guarantees for our citizens, we will find a solution rapidly," he added.

Barnier and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who met May over dinner in London on Wednesday, had a first hand look at how negotiations could develop.

“I have the impression sometimes that our British friends do underestimate the technical difficulties we have to face,” EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said. "It's not feasible that it can be done just like that".

Ireland

The EU's third priority, the status of the border on the Irish island, could have far-ranging consequences, as EU leaders agreed to consider an automatic membership for Northern Ireland if it left the UK and joined the Republic of Ireland.

In a statement that will be added to the meeting's minutes, EU leaders said that if Ireland was united "through peaceful and democratic means … the entire territory of such a united Ireland would thus be part of the European Union".

"EU membership is assured, that is now unanimously accepted by the European Council to endorse that legal base," Irish prime minister Enda Kenny said after the meeting.

He said the guidelines and the statement were "a clear recognition of the unique and specific challenge" for Ireland and "a huge endorsement" of his government's campaign to raise awareness on the issue.

He insisted that with the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland becoming an EU external border, it was "important to provide reinsurance that [Brexit] do not undermine any provision" of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

France

While discussing the departure of the EU's third biggest country, EU leaders also bade farewell to Francois Hollande, the president of the second biggest, over concerns that his successor would try to take France out of the EU.

"The consequences would be serious if France turned away from the EU," Hollande warned, a week ahead of the presidential election run-off between a centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron, and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

"The choice of the French people is a choice for France, but also for the EU," he noted, adding that he believed that the French people wanted to remain in the EU.

Juncker asked the French "to stay French" and not to "leave a big national ambition" - the EU project.

"It is not the moment to disintegrate what has been so difficult to integrate," he said.

Hollande noted that while Brexit was used as "an example" for Le Pen and other anti-EU politicians supporting her, it was "not a convincing exemple, because the UK is losing all its benefits" from EU membership.

"Leaving Europe is to leave France, in a way," he said, as a conclusion to his last EU summit.

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