First signs of discord appear as Britain begins Brexit

The Elizabeth Tower with a view of the Big Ben at parliament in London.
The Elizabeth Tower with a view of the Big Ben at parliament in London.PHOTO: EPA

LONDON • Britain has begun the messy task of disentangling itself from thousands of European laws, as the first signs of rancour between London and Brussels emerged at the start of their two- year divorce proceedings.

As some of the European Union's top leaders gathered in Malta to flesh out their strategy for the tough talks ahead, British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday published plans to fill the "large holes" that Brexit will leave in business regulations. She set out proposals to incorporate an estimated 19,000 Europe-based rules into British law on the day Britain leaves the EU. The so-called Great Repeal Bill will enable ministers and lawmakers in London to decide in the months and years after Brexit which bits of four decades of European legislation to keep, and which bits to scrap.

"The government's first objective as we negotiate a new deep and special partnership with the European Union is to provide business, the public sector and everybody in our country with as much certainty as possible as we move through the process," Mrs May said in a foreword to the plans. "This clarity will help people to plan effectively, recruit appropriately and invest as necessary while the negotiations continue."

The blueprint came a day after Mrs May put Britain on course to exit the EU by March 30, 2019.

Analysts said the tone of Wednesday's historic announcement and the EU's initial reaction was largely conciliatory. European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker urged the remaining 27 EU nations to pull together as the bloc reels from the blow of one of its biggest members becoming the first to announce its withdrawal from the 60-year-old union.

The first signs of discord were already emerging, however, as a row developed over what was perceived as a veiled threat by London that cooperation over EU security would be endangered if there was no deal.

"May threat to EU terror pact", ran the headline in The Times daily after she wrote in the letter that "in security terms, a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened".

The European Parliament's chief negotiator, Mr Guy Verhofstadt, hit back immediately, saying that "citizens' security was far too serious a subject" to be held hostage to the negotiations.

Indeed, the path ahead is strewn with obstacles, with the matter of three million EU citizens living in Britain and one million British people within the bloc's nations at the top of the leaders' agenda.

Also looming large over negotiations is the so-called "exit bill" that Britain will have to pay, estimated to be as much as €60 billion (S$90 billion).

Mr Juncker is meeting EU President Donald Tusk, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in Malta today for two days of talks.

In a letter setting out Britain's position, Mrs May stressed that she wanted to "remain committed partners and allies to our friends across the continent" and to forge a "deep and special relationship" with the rest of the bloc.

On the other side of the Channel, Europe's powerhouse leader, Dr Merkel, called for "fair and constructive" negotiations, and a gloomy Mr Tusk said: "We already miss you."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2017, with the headline 'First signs of discord appear as Britain begins Brexit'. Print Edition | Subscribe