Downbeat Tusk ready for 'damage control' after UK triggers Article 50
The EU is beginning a two-year exercise in "damage control" after the UK formally triggered its exit from the bloc Wednesday.
In a downbeat statement to reporters after receiving a letter from the British prime minister, European Council president Donald Tusk said there was "no reason to pretend this is a happy day".
The six-page document sets in train a two-year process of negotiation under Article 50 of the EU treaties leading to Britain's expected withdrawal after 46 years of membership in 2019.
"Most Europeans, including almost half the British voters, wish that we would stay together, not drift apart. As for me, I will not pretend that I am happy today," said Mr Tusk. "We already miss you. Thank you and goodbye."
"There is nothing to win in this process, and I am talking about both sides," said Mr Tusk said after the letter was hand-delivered to him by the UK's EU ambassador. "In essence, this is about damage control."
Mr Tusk, who will table draft guidelines for the talks on Friday, said the goal will be to "minimise costs" for the EU.
His text, to be approved by EU leaders (minus the UK) at a summit on 29 April, will confirm the bloc's intention to deal with citizens, budget and border issues before any trade deal.
In her letter, British Prime Minister Theresa May attempted to strike a conciliatory tone, saying she wanted to forge a "deep and special partnership" with the EU.
But the European Parliament, which will have a veto on the divorce deal and a future EU-UK trade agreement, insisted that there would be no "trade offs" in the talks and took a more hardline position, limiting a post-Brexit transition period to three years.
The EU's lead Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said his team was "ready" for talks, just a week after evoking the prospect of long queues at border crossings and disruptions to air travel if no deal is reached within the two-year deadline set out in Article 50 of the EU treaty.
Ireland will get special attention in the talks, according to European Parliament Brexit pointman Guy Verhofstadt, who said the island faced a "special threat" from Brexit.
"New unrest in Northern Ireland has absolutely to be avoided," Mr Verhofstadt told reporters. "The Brexit agreement needs to fully respect the Good Friday Agreement, in all its aspects, and that means also, we will never accept a hard border again between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic."
In a draft resolution to be voted on by the entire Parliament next week, MEPs will say "all means and measures" should be used to "mitigate the effects of United Kingdom's withdrawal on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland".
Meanwhile the mood was jubilant at a UK Independence Party (Ukip) gathering at the Old Hack public house across the road, where Brexiteers toasted what they see as the UK's newfound freedom.