Saturday 24 February 2018

EU officials hope convincing win will let May push through a softer Brexit

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives to deliver a speech to party activists in Croydon, London, yesterday Picture: PA
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives to deliver a speech to party activists in Croydon, London, yesterday Picture: PA

Alastair MacDonald

Brexit negotiations will start in June as planned, after Britons vote in a snap general election, the European Union said yesterday as parliament endorsed UK Prime Minister Theresa May's call for a vote on June 8.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke to Mrs May after her dramatic U-turn on Tuesday. Having ruled out an early election, Mrs May is now gambling on winning a bigger majority that could help her push through a divorce deal with Brussels by 2019 despite divisions within Britain, and in her own party.

Mr Juncker's spokesman said the election would not delay the start of negotiations, which the Commission's chief negotiator Michel Barnier has previously said would start in early June.

However, it is likely to take a few days, assuming victory on June 8, for Mrs May to confirm her negotiating team; it is currently led by Brexit Secretary David Davis, who unlike Mrs May is a long-time opponent of Britain's EU membership.

For now, Brussels negotiators and governments of the other 27 EU states are continuing to fine-tune their common position for the talks. A summit on April 29 should pave the way for Mr Barnier to get his final negotiating instructions on May 22. EU officials have said that "talks about talks" could start in late May, to settle, for example, how negotiations would be structured. It is not clear how the election may affect that.

Diplomats speak of unusual levels of unity among EU governments - at least for now - on ensuring that Mrs May cannot secure too sweet a deal that might encourage other states to follow suit.

Underlining that Britain will lose EU benefits, Mr Juncker's spokesman dismissed a suggestion from Mr Davis's ministry that two EU offices, the European Banking Authority (EBA) and European Medicines Agency (EMA), might not have to leave London.

Countering Britain's suggestion that their relocation was "subject to the exit negotiations", the spokesman told reporters: "It is not part of the Brexit negotiations." Both would certainly be moved so that they remain on EU territory.

Cautious

EU officials have welcomed Mrs May's election move but remain cautious about its impact on a final agreement.

Much could depend on whether a bigger majority leaves Mrs May less dependent on hardliners in her Conservative party. They say they would rather reject any deal than accept Brussels' demands that Britain continue to submit to many EU rules, for example on migration or judicial oversight, in return for market access.

"It may give her more room to manoeuvre," one senior EU official said of an increased majority. Some diplomats detect in the letter Mrs May sent last month to trigger the two-year countdown to Brexit that she is willing to compromise more than some in her party, to accept more EU authority in return for access to European markets that much of British business wants her to maintain.

Negotiators will look closely at the election manifesto that the Conservatives will issue next month for any indications that Mrs May is indeed seeking a popular mandate for a "softer" Brexit.

Threat

For Giles Merritt, chairman of the Friends of Europe think-tank in Brussels, Mrs May's explanation of her election surprise - "it's about getting the best possible deal" on Brexit - was a clear shift from her threat to walk away into legal limbo, preferring "no deal" to accepting "a bad deal" in 2019.

"May will be able to tell hardliners they must put up or shut up," Mr Merritt wrote in a commentary. "It will be up to Michel Barnier...to capitalise on the UK's less belligerent approach and ensure that the EU too can be flexible."

Irish Independent

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