European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is ready to take a “tough stance” with the UK. Rallying behind its boss, the executive’s legal arm confirmed its support for Juncker taking charge of the negotiations, EURACTIV.com has learnt.
The College of Commissioners met on Monday (27 June), on the eve of the summit of 28 EU leaders, to prepare the executive’s position on the talks to cut ties with Britain.
Member states would prefer the European Council to lead Brexit talks, but the Commission is keen to carve out a prominent role.
According to EU officials, the president’s message was simple. The negotiations should start “as soon as possible” to avoid the spread of uncertainty across the member states and the financial markets. Therefore, British Prime Minister David Cameron should activate Article 50 of the treaty as soon as possible.
“I would like the UK to clarify its position”, Juncker told the European Parliament’s plenary on 28 June (Tuesday). “There are not going to be any closed-door meetings” as negotiations would start only when Cameron triggers the legal process to exit the EU, Article 50, he added.
French President François Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi also urged Cameron to start the negotiations by notifying to the European Council its intention to exit the EU. London wanted to hold preparatory talks to secure some points on its future status towards the EU before starting the formal talks.
The British leader was not expected to communicate to the EU leaders on 28 June its intention to withdraw from the 28-member club. Cameron said after the referendum that it should be the new prime minister, once he leaves the post in October.
But patience is scarce on the European side.
Although Juncker admits that the EU must respect the result of the referendum, he “insisted” on showing a “tough stance” towards the British government, he told his Commissioners on the eve of the summit.
Member states agree with this approach. A diplomat from a large country said that the other 27 governments cannot be “understanding” and should act in a “serious and tough” manner.
Cameron found only a veiled support across the Atlantic Ocean before the negotiations start. The Secretary of State of the US John Kerry visited Brussels to tell member states that “Nobody loses their head, nobody goes off half-cocked, people don’t start ginning up scattered-brained or revengeful premises.”
Who will lead?
The “emotional” college meeting on 27 June, as it took place after Commissioner Jonathan Hill’s resignation was announced, backed Juncker’s readiness to play hardball.
But the executive could end up taking a back seat in the Brexit talks.
According to Article 50, the negotiations for the withdrawal of a member state must be concluded by the Council on behalf of the EU, after obtaining the consent of the Parliament. The decisions made during this process would be adopted by qualified majority.
Following the referendum, it was reported that the Belgian diplomat Didier Seeuws would be in charge of negotiating the UK’s future relationship with the EU. In parallel, a task force set up by the Commission would work on the details to conclude the divorce of the two sides.
Some diplomats believe that it should be the European Council (the EU leaders’ gathering) that should take the leading role, either its President Donald Tusk, “or German chancellor Angela Merkel”.
But the European Commission disagrees, and it got an opinion from its legal service to support its claim for prominence.
Despite the disagreement, the executive “certainly” would not fight for the spotlight “if the Council thinks they can conduct the very detailed negotiations”, an official commented on a warning note.
One thing is clear in the European Commission’s headquarters: There can be only one lead negotiator.
If the Council leads the negotiation of the more sensitive part of EU-Britain’s future relationship, it should also manage the nitty-gritty of Britain’s disconnection from the EU.