Saturday 21 April 2018

Estranged EU keen to put very British break-up behind it

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker takes part in a public dialogue meeting
on ‘The Future of Europe’ in light of Brexit in Malta yesterday Picture: Reuters
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker takes part in a public dialogue meeting on ‘The Future of Europe’ in light of Brexit in Malta yesterday Picture: Reuters

Sarah Collins

The UK's 'Dear Donald' letter sets in motion the biggest break-up in EU history, but one the bloc is determined to get over.

"We are moving on," European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said.

"We already miss you," European Council President Donald Tusk said, on receipt of the hand-delivered missive from Britain's EU ambassador Tim Barrow yesterday.

Though visibly and vocally downcast - "I will not pretend that I am happy today", he said - he managed to find "something positive in Brexit".

"Brexit has made us - the community of 27 - more determined and more united than before," Mr Tusk said.

The same bravado was on display in Rome last weekend when that "community of 27" celebrated 60 years since the signing of the bloc's founding treaty.

The fact that the UK was getting ready to serve divorce papers on the EU around the same time was studiously ignored at the meeting.

But there was a collective sigh of relief yesterday when they finally came.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, whose country has close economic and trade links to the UK, said the letter "provided much-needed clarity", adding that divorce talks should start "soon".

The EU is united in its determination to ring-fence those talks, to allow the bloc to focus on the many crises it still faces.

"No one gains anything from Brexit," one EU diplomat close to the talks said. "We want to put this behind us as soon as we can and let the negotiators negotiate, rather than obsess over it."

Upcoming elections in France and Germany, Greece's never-ending debt talks, persistently high unemployment in southern Europe and the ongoing refugee crisis are taking precedence over Brexit, while the EU is also trying to find its footing with a Eurosceptic US president and an increasingly militaristic Russian one.

"There's a sense of getting back to the day job," Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes said, pointing to the need to "safeguard, extend and protect" the economic recovery still under way.

"Brexit is not the only challenge that we face," Mr Tajani said. "There is a growing feeling of anxiety, people are worried about their future, illegal immigration and terrorism."

Read More: Podcast: Theresa May triggers Article 50 - 'Ireland must prepare for the decade of Brexit'

Only two hours before the UK's letter was delivered, European Commission competition chief Margrethe Vestager was blocking a proposed merger between the London Stock Exchange and Germany's Deutsche Börse.

Although she denied that Brexit influenced the decision, the irony was not lost.

So while Brexit may not be all that's on the EU's work programme, preparations are well under way.

The EU's lead Brexit negotiator, Frenchman Michel Barnier, said today his negotiating team was "ready" to go. He has a 30-strong panel of commission officials advising him on everything from agriculture to banking, who will do the leg-work once EU leaders agree on their negotiating red lines.

Their position will become clearer on Friday, when former Polish premier Mr Tusk, who chairs the regular EU leaders' summits, will table a draft text for their consideration.

It's not expected to contain much detail, though it will set out their intention to agree on UK budget liabilities, citizens' rights and Irish Border issues before talking about a free trade deal.

Mr Tusk says it will be about "damage control" and "minimising costs" and that he has a "strong mandate to protect the interests of the 27".

UK Premier Theresa May says she wants to forge a "deep and special partnership" with the EU, but is unwilling to budge on immigration curbs.

Whether they can manage an amicable divorce remains to be seen.

Irish Independent

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