Birthday bash and Brexit set Brussels abuzz

A banner marking the 60 years of the singing of the Treaty of Rome is displayed at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. Photo: 20 March 2017 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The EU celebrates its 60th birthday this Saturday

Brussels was abuzz on Monday.

And I don't get to say that very often.

On the one hand, eurocrats were hurried - in wind and rain - into EU courtyards to stand in photo-op-ready groups to form the number 60.

(It's the EU's 60th birthday celebration this Saturday.)

And on the other - after months of cajoling, thinly-veiled frustration and angst from Brussels - the UK government finally made clear the date it will officially trigger the Brexit process.

Next Wednesday.

But whereas Saturday really is a huge deal for the EU - marking decades of togetherness at a time when the union is very much under threat from populist nationalism across the EU, inequality and discord in the eurozone, migration complications and Brexit itself, of course - next Wednesday, while an historic day in the UK, will not play out so big this side of the Channel.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Article 50 timer is set for two years and the clock starts ticking next Wednesday

There is a determination here that Brexit must no longer be allowed to dominate and overshadow EU politics as it has done since way before the UK referendum even.

One high-level source told me that after Brussels received Britain's formal notification of its intention to leave, Brexit would immediately be downgraded to one of many EU issues to be dealt with, rather than The Big Thing.

"There will be no major political apocalyptic show," he assured me.

But of course, the underlying EU fear remains that if a Brexit deal is too sweet for the UK, other countries may be inspired to also walk out the door.

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Media captionBrexit divorce: 'conscious uncoupling' or bitter breakup?

Brussels officials are grateful that Theresa May did not trigger Article 50 this week, so close to the EU's birthday bash.

The tone there will be resolutely upbeat, rather than focused on one of its key members leaving the club.

As for the what-happens-next with Brexit, the rule in Brussels is: don't expect too much too fast. Ever.

The remaining 27 EU leaders, or at least their teams, began getting diaries together on Monday.

To fix a date (expected in around five or six weeks) for that all-important summit when they'll agree their red lines and guidelines for Brexit negotiations.

The European Commission will lead the UK talks from the EU side - but all the initial meetings will be about who will meet, when, in which country, discussing what and in which order.

Most probably little of substance will be achieved before the autumn.

The EU prefers to get the key elections coming up in big-hitters France and Germany out the way first.

But any delay is painful for the UK.

The Article 50 timer is set for two years and the clock starts ticking next Wednesday.

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