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8th Aug 2022

EU stresses unity as it launches next phase of Brexit talks

EU-27 leaders on Friday (15 December) approved moving Brexit talks with British prime minister Theresa May onto the next phase, and start discussions about a transition period possibly as soon as in January.

They agreed that sufficient progress has been achieved on the terms of divorce on citizens' rights, the Irish border and financial settlement with the UK.  

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European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker commended May, saying she is a "tough, smart, polite, friendly negotiator".

It took ten minutes for leaders to adopt the guidelines for the transition talks to begin in January.

They had a "sober and short" discussion on the transition period, an EU source said.

To kick off those transition talks, the EU commission is expected to propose a negotiating mandate next Wednesday to be adopted by member states in January.

In the meantime, the EU and UK will transpose the deal reached last Friday (8 December) on key divorce issues into a legal text.

The EU also wants more clarity from the UK on what sort of trade and future relationship it envisages after Brexit to be able to start discussions on that future after March, when EU leaders adopt another set of guidelines for those talks.

"It is now time for internal EU-27 preparations and exploratory contacts with the UK, to get more clarity on their vision," European Council president Donald Tusk told reporters after the meeting.

Friday's guidelines set out that the transition period should be "clearly defined and precisely limited in time", suggesting it would be designed to coincide with the end of the next seven-year EU budget that runs out in 2020.

In September, May outlined an "around" two-year-long transition period after the UK leaves the bloc in March 2019. 

"It is important that it is time limited ... We have to make sure [a country that leaves] doesn't stay in a transition stage for ever – it wouldn't work for either the UK, nor the EU," Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar told press after the meeting.

Transition conditions

The EU has said that during the transition period the UK will have to abide by EU rules and regulations as if it were member, but without a seat at the table. That means no UK commissioner, no MEPs, and no UK minister at council meetings.

The EU's rules for transition include complying with EU trade policy, which means the UK could start its own bilateral trade negotiations (but cannot conclude them before the transition period ends), and can ask the EU and third parties to roll-over existing trade accords. 

The UK will also need to continue to respect the rulings of the the EU's top court, the European Court of Justice during the transition period, an anathema for hardcore Brexit supporters. 

After the guidelines were adopted, May thanked her European counterparts.

"Today is an important step on the road to delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit and forging our deep and special future partnership," she tweeted. 

In a separate tweet she promised "securing the greatest possible access to European markets, boosting free trade with countries across the world, and delivering control over our borders, law and money" in the Brexit deal.  

May on Thursday night had updated the leaders on the divorce deal. Nobody commented on her intervention, but her brief talk was received with a round of applause.

"Some of us thought that she did make big efforts and this has to be recognised," EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said Friday.

There was unease in Brussels over a Westminster vote on Wednesday that gives a final say to MPs on the Brexit deal, with concerns over May's ability to negotiate an agreement. 

But EU leaders offered their support to May.

"Everyone appreciated her personal efforts and engagement," Christian Kern, Austria's prime minister said Thursday night.

Unity

The unity achieved at the end of the first phase of Brexit talks, and how it could be maintained, was very much on the mind of leaders on the summit.

German chancellor Angela Merkel warned on Friday at her press conference that upcoming negotiations will be even tougher than the previous nine months of talks.

"Unity was very much the topic of the discussion," Varadkar said, adding that individual bilateral negotiations with the UK should be avoided.

EU countries have started already and will continue to hold internal discussions on their priorities for the future relations.

Divergences in priorities could surface, and thus be exploited by British negotiators, although leaders seem keen to avoid that.

Dutch tight-lipped

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte at his press conference on Friday refused point blank to give details on the priorities in the future talks for the Netherlands, which is one of the countries that has been seen as a potential ally for the UK.

"I am not going to answer that, because then I would be breaking the unity of the 27," he said.

"The most important decision we made today was that we will do this behind the scenes, and that we will protect the unity of the 27," Rutte added.

"Remaining united was already challenging during the first phase," Rutte said, referring to the UK as "smart negotiators" who knew how to "call capitals".

"We managed to keep that unity and really have the ambition to do the same in the next period," the premier added.

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