Negotiations begin for Britain's exit from the European Union

European Union Chief Negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier looks on during a news conference after a European General Affairs Ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium on May 22, 2017.
European Union Chief Negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier looks on during a news conference after a European General Affairs Ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium on May 22, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (Washington Post) - Britain and the European Union opened difficult negotiations on Monday (June 19) that will end the country’s 43-year membership in the economic and political alliance – even as Britain remained sharply split over what to seek in the unprecedented divorce.

The first formal negotiations took place just short of a year after British voters narrowly decided to leave the European Union, which was long a source of love-hate angst in British politics.

The Brexit victory shocked even backers of the measure and unleashed a wave of nationalism and populism that was seen as helping sweep Donald Trump into the White House.

But British society has remained deeply divided about the meaning of the Brexit vote and the extent to which leaders should pull out of wide-ranging relationships that have delivered prosperity and frustration to generations of British citizens.

Backers of the British divorce admitted after the vote that they had no road map. And hours before British negotiators sped across the English Channel to Brussels to begin the talks, British leaders were still arguing about what precisely to demand from the European Union in a process that must conclude by March 2019.

“It is at testing times like these that we are reminded of the values and the resolve we share with our closest allies in Europe,” the British minister charged with negotiating the deal, David Davis, said on Monday alongside his EU negotiating counterpart, Michel Barnier.

Davis mentioned recent terrorist attacks that he said drew Britain and the European Union closer. “We are starting this negotiation in a positive and constructive tone, determined to build a strong and special partnership between ourselves, our European allies and friends,” he said.

Barnier was less warm as he welcomed Davis. “We must first tackle the uncertainties caused by Brexit, first for citizens but also for beneficiaries of EU policies and for the impact on borders – in particular Ireland,” said Barnier, raising the prospect that the British split could rekindle violence in Northern Ireland.

“I hope today we can identify priorities and a timetable that would allow me to report to the European council later this week that we had a constructive opening of negotiations.”

European leaders have repeatedly said that Britain need not go through with its plans for divorce – although they have been tough about what a split would mean if it happens.

“We want to leave the door open to the British,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told Germany’s Welt am Sonntag newspaper in remarks published on Sunday (June 18). He said he hoped for a “soft Brexit", which would leave many trade and immigration ties in place.

Barnier, a veteran French politician, has been vested by the European Union’s 27 remaining countries to enforce their no-compromise red-lines that any deal for Britain must not be more favourable than the one it currently has as a full member.

The issues at stake are daunting.

Unresolved is everything from the status of EU citizens living in Britain, to intelligence sharing, to the future of tens of thousands of British jobs that could be wiped out if businesses move to Europe to avoid new trade barriers.

So far, European leaders have remained united that Britain cannot have full access to European markets unless it also allows full access to its own. European demands for British restitution have also increased, from US$67 billion (S$92.75 billion) a few months ago to US$112 billion now, a measure of the degree of EU toughening against British Prime Minister Theresa May.

May herself is a deeply weakened leader who was badly damaged after parliamentary elections earlier this month swept away her Conservative majority. That against-all-odds result means that the British leader is far from assured of staying in her seat even as the Brexit talks get underway.

But further turmoil and a new prime minister could risk any progress that is made in the first weeks of talks if the new leader decides to take a different direction.

Splits have opened in the British government about the Brexit strategy, even as top Conservatives have held back from booting May, at least for now. British treasury chief Philip Hammond last week said that Britain should prioritise business interests as it negotiates.

That was widely interpreted as a recommendation that the country remain in Europe’s customs union, a free-trade area in which most trade negotiating power remains in Brussels. Hammond said on Sunday that with Brexit, Britain would legally be required to pull out of the customs union, but he appeared to leave space for a similar replacement to be created.

“The question is not whether we are leaving the customs union, the question is what do we put in its place in order to deliver the objectives which the prime minister set out,” he told the BBC.

May plans to present EU leaders on Thursday (June 22) with a proposal that would detail British plans for EU citizens living inside Britain, according to the Times of London, which said that the leaked draft would be “generous". Any deal will depend on the willingness of both sides to bargain as the clock ticks toward March 2019 when, under treaty rules, Britain will leave the European Union whether it has reached a deal about how the new relationship will function.

But as Europe grows more confident in its future following the election victory in France of pro-EU President Emmanuel Macron and the growing assurance from German Chancellor Angela Merkel that she will be re-elected in September, analysts say there may be fewer reasons for Europe to compromise.

“They can be more relaxed about Britain crashing out without a deal that could destabilise the EU economy and destabilise the euro zone,” said Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank.

Though the basic outlines of a deal could be struck within the allotted time, he said, uncertain British politics could add a challenge.

“The more that Britain is unstable politically, the more difficult it is to complete the talks on time,” Grant said.