Leaders call for discipline to maintain fragile unity in Brexit talks

German chancellor Angela Merkel went around the table to highlight the importance of maintaining the discipline during the Brexit talks. [Council]

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned that talks over the post-Brexit EU budget could divide member states, undermining the show of unity they put on at a summit today (29 April).

“As the debate proceeds and budgetary matters arise, there will be tough decisions. Clearly there are those who don’t want to pay a penny more and those who don’t want to give up a penny either,” Juncker told journalists after the meeting.

Leaders of the 27 member states flaunted their agreement over how to go into Brexit negotiations, set to start in June. But they warned that their unity won’t last.

Aside from the discrepancies over how to deal with the financial hole that Brexit will leave (Commission estimates run between €9 and 12 billion), EU leaders today expressed concern about the differences that are bound to come up during discussions over the bloc’s future relationship with Britain.

At the start of the summit—the first meeting of the 27 heads of state without UK Prime Minister Theresa May—leaders quickly endorsed a 26-point set of guidelines that fix the EU’s position for the negotiations. Then they were eager to show off how easy it was to sign off on their priorities for the divorce.

Previous summits—especially during the height of the migration crisis and nail-biting talks over the Greek debt—have gone until the early morning. Today’s wrapped up in just over three hours.

EU unity in ruins after Poland's tussle over Tusk

European Union plans to present a united front in the face of Brexit were thrown into disarray tonight (9 March), after Poland was overruled in its opposition to the reappointment of Donald Tusk as European Council President.

Preben Aammann, the spokesman of European Council President Donald Tusk, told reporters “it took one minute” until all 27 agreed.

Juncker tweeted that the text was adopted “in less than 15 minutes”.

The leaders got a running start: Tusk presented a first draft of the document on 31 March and national governments’ envoys and ministers made changes after that. The guidelines were done and dusted by the time heads of state touched down in Brussels.

Legal details on Wednesday

The Commission will publish legal details to accompany the negotiations next Wednesday (3 May). The capitals are set to sign off on those details at a 22 May meeting—after that, the Commission will be the official negotiator for the 27 member states in Brexit talks, which are expected to start after the UK parliamentary elections on 8 June.

Negotiations with the UK will begin with a focus on citizens’ rights, the Northern Irish border and the bill the UK will be required to pay into the EU budget before it leaves, estimated to be around €60 billion. The EU guidelines ask to see “sufficient progress” on those three points before new phases in the talks can start. Officials say they expect sufficient progress on the first issues by autumn.

Leaders were keen to mention citizens rights in their remarks at the summit—there are three million EU citizens living in the UK, and 1.5 million British citizens living in EU-27 countries.

Brexit talks place citizens' rights in limbo

Brexit negotiators will face “extraordinarily complex” talks over the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British expats in Europe, according to sources in Brussels.

“We need a serious British response,” Tusk said. “So many people’s lives depend on this.”

Everyone involved in the talks is under time pressure: negotiations are legally required to finish by March 2019, two years after the day when May officially started the Brexit process with her Article 50 letter to Tusk.

But leaders are not optimistic they can keep up the pace.

“Don’t expect us to keep the same speed, it will never happen again,” Juncker said after the summit concluded.

“We won’t always be as calm and measured as today, I forecast,” Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny told reporters.

Merkel, the ‘discipliner’

Merkel played the role of discipliner, warning that the member states will have to be “very vigilant and very disciplined” to go through negotiations phase by phase—without jumping ahead to address each country’s special interests or the EU’s future relationship with the UK.

“We shouldn’t take the third step before we’ve taken the second,” she said.

The 27 leaders’ unity could be short-lived. Divisive issues will crop up in the talks soon.

At the next Council summit in June, Juncker and Tusk will present the 27 heads of state with a proposal on the criteria and the process to select the new location for the two EU agencies  now based in the UK—the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority. Other member states have lined up to bid as their next host.

Battle for EU agencies may erode EU unity pre-Brexit

The future of EU agencies based in London will be part of tomorrow’s EU-27 summit, an issue that could erode the unity that European leaders want to showcase before the divorce talks with the UK begin.

A final decision on the agencies is expected in October.

While member states without any agency would argue in favour of a fair distribution between the 27, those that already have several EU bodies are insisting on “objective criteria” to decide the new seating.

Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland, France and Nordic states are some of the candidates to host the EMA.

“I am sure that if the EMA staff could vote, Barcelona would be the chosen one,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told reporters.

Amid the political battle between Madrid and the Catalonian government over a possible referendum on independence, Rajoy warned that the vote could affect its candidacy to host the agency.

“Institutional stability is a very important factor, and it would always be favourable. Otherwise it would influence in a different manner,” he warned.

United Ireland

Kenny secured a victory by inserting a reference into the summit minutes that guarantee a united Ireland would automatically be an EU member state—if Northern Ireland ever votes to join the Republic. No other leaders opposed the reference. But that was the easy part.

He won over other leaders with the reference to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and in the summit minutes, which he called a “significant legal statement.”

EU summit to mull post-Brexit membership for a 'united Ireland'

EU leaders will discuss whether to back automatic membership for Northern Ireland after Brexit if it ever reunifies with Ireland, sources said yesterday (27 April).

One EU source said officials from at least four small member states told an Irish diplomat they were happy the reference made it into the document because it showed that “there is space for a smaller member state carved out when their back is to the wall.”

Kenny repeated today that he does not think there is enough support now to call for a referendum in Northern Ireland on uniting with the Republic of Ireland.

Ireland’s Europe Minister Dara Murphy told euractiv.com, “It may be 10,20 30 years on before this provision comes along. I think just the clarity that it is there now in the minutes is important.”

  • 3 May: European Commission unveils negotiating directives for the Brexit negotiations.
  • 22 May: Council expected to endorse the negotiating directives.
  • 8 June: Elections in the UK.
  • March 2019: Official end of the Brexit negotiations.

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