LONDON (AFP) – Britain begins historic talks on leaving the European Union on Monday (June 19) while still mourning the victims of a devastating fire and reeling from an election that has badly weakened the government.
Brexit minister David Davis will travel to Brussels to meet Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to kick off hugely complex withdrawal negotiations that are expected to last less than two years.
Worried by immigration and loss of sovereignty, Britain last year voted to end its decades-old membership of the 28-country bloc – the first country ever to do so – in a shock referendum result.
The government has developed a strategy of “hard Brexit” to cut the numbers of immigrants arriving from the EU at the expense of Britain’s membership of the European single market and customs union.
But that entire approach has come under question following a general election earlier this month in which Prime Minister Theresa May lost her Conservative party’s parliamentary majority.
Ordinary Britons are also beginning to feel the cost of Brexit because of higher import prices caused by a plunge in the pound and businesses are increasingly worried about losing trade access.
May has clung on to power since the election but has so far failed to strike an agreement with Northern Ireland’s ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that would allow her to govern.
The Conservatives now only have 317 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons and need the support of the DUP’s 10 MPs for a razor-thin majority.
The government is due to present its programme at the opening of parliament on Wednesday, which will be followed by a key confidence vote days later.
Adding to what Queen Elizabeth II called the “sombre national mood” have been three terrorist attacks in three months and a fire in a London tower block in which 58 people are presumed dead.
SOFTER STRATEGY ON BREXIT?
The government’s current weakness has helped fuel criticism of its approach to Brexit, although pro-EU campaigners’ hopes that it could rethink the decision to leave the EU have come to nothing.
Finance minister Philip Hammond has led calls for a softer strategy on Brexit, prioritising the economy.
“When I talk about a Brexit that supports British jobs, British investment and British business I mean a Brexit that avoids those cliff edges,” Hammond said in an interview with BBC television on Sunday. He said such a Brexit would mean “that we segue seamlessly from the customs union that we are in at the moment to a new arrangement in the future that will continue to allow British goods to flow not just without tariffs, because actually tariffs are a relatively small part of the problem, it is without delays and bureaucracy.”
Other members of May’s Conservatives have called for a more inclusive approach on Brexit strategy that would include the voices of opposition parties as well as the views of Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both voted to stay in the EU.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who is newly influential after winning 13 seats in Scotland, has said Britain should prioritise “freedom to trade and our economic growth”.
‘BROADEST POSSIBLE CONSENSUS’
Monday’s negotiations are to open at 11am local time in Brussels (5pm Singapore) with 90 minutes of talks between Barnier and Davis, followed by a working lunch between the pair and a press conference.
Working groups will be set up to focus on three key areas – the status of EU citizens living in Britain and British citizens living in the EU; the divorce bill for Britain; and the future of the Northern Irish border with EU member Ireland.
Britain and the EU are already at odds over the order of the talks, with London insisting future trade ties should be discussed at the same time as the divorce despite opposition from Brussels.
The negotiations have been billed as the most complex in Britain’s history as it unravels 44 years of membership and its threat to walk out with no deal in place has worried European capitals.
The government on Saturday said parliament would hold a special two-year session starting this week, sitting for double the normal time to allow it to overhaul European Union legislation.
“We will build the broadest possible consensus for our Brexit plans and that means giving parliament the maximum amount of time to scrutinise these bills by holding a two-year session of parliament,” the government said in a statement.
Crawford Falconer, a former trade chief for New Zealand, was also appointed the government’s new chief trade negotiation adviser last week to search for new free trade partnerships outside the EU.
International Trade Minister Liam Fox will be travelling to Washington on Monday to explore new trade ties – although no formal negotiations are possible until Britain has actually left the bloc.