UK's red letter day awaited in Brussels - with Brexit talks looming

British Prime Minister Theresa May walks past European Union flags as she and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (not pictured) arrive to speak to the media following talks at the Chancellery on July 20, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Theresa May, pictured in July 2016 on her first trip as PM - to meet Germany's Angela Merkel

It's now almost a year since the UK blind-sided the EU by voting to leave the club.

Almost 12 whole calendar months.

And the sum total of face-to-face negotiations between the two sides to date? Zero.

Perfectly explicable in political circles, though baffling for much of the general public.

That's why, on both sides of the Channel, 8 June is a red-letter day.

Not only is it general election time for the UK, but here in Brussels it means finally starting Brexit negotiations - once the new British government is in place.

The first day of EU-UK Brexit talks is expected to be 19 June. And they will focus on who will meet, how often, in which country, discussing which aspects of Brexit, in which order.

And how prepared are the two sides?

Well, there's a definite aura of smugness emanating from the European Commission. Their man, Michel Barnier, is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator.

While the UK seemed to tear itself apart with recriminations hurled between Leavers and Remainers after the EU referendum, with politics and press coverage then becoming caught up in general election fever, the EU was quietly getting its Brexit ducks in a row.

The game plan

It struck me once again this week just how far apart the two sides' pre-negotiating styles are.

Theresa May's government insists it has a Brexit plan - but prefers not to divulge it.

Instead, British voters are doused in rhetoric: Brexit means Brexit, No deal is better than a bad deal, and so forth, repeated by Prime Minister May in a televised interview just this Monday.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Both large parties in the UK election are set for Brexit, no matter what

The very same day, the European Commission produced groaningly meaty documents with draft negotiating details on two of its key Brexit priorities: the post-Brexit rights of EU citizens in the UK and of UK citizens in the EU, and the financial settlement the EU insists Britain pays before leaving.

The documents contain no real surprises, but as one of my colleagues noted, "no detail seems too small".

A stark reminder that the EU has been mulling all this over for the past 11 months. It's been busy game-planning. It's got in the lawyers.

In the draft papers, the EU even calls for the salaries of native English teachers at elite European schools attended by civil servants' children to be included in Britain's exit bill.

Also listed are the multiple legal acts from which the EU is calculating the UK's financial liabilities, though the final sum is notably absent. The EU wants Britain to agree on a methodology, to work out the precise exit bill in the first stage of negotiations.

Brexiteers desperate to "take back control" will be angry to see that Brussels wants the European Court of Justice to maintain jurisdiction in disputes involving the rights of EU citizens remaining in the UK after Brexit.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Michel Barnier is leading the EU side - and he's been preparing

It's this sort of detail that could well lead to confrontation with the UK government from the start - so why publish the minutiae in the first place?

Two answers to that one:

  • The European Commission's Michel Barnier is negotiating not on behalf of a single government but 27 of them (the remaining EU member states) plus the European Parliament. So he has to agree a detailed common position at the start.
  • The draft negotiating papers have been made public because Brussels is trying to turn a potential weakness into a strength.

With so many players involved on the EU side, the likelihood of press leaks are manifold, so Brussels is going for full disclosure in the name of "transparency".

Importantly for the UK, absent from any EU document is a mandate for Mr Barnier to negotiate post-Brexit relations with Britain, including a future trade deal, during the first phase of talks.

So insist though the British may, it is not in his discretion to start parallel negotiations.

Divorce, not war

This will be tough for Britain's new government to accept. The time pressure is huge.

Under EU rules, the Brexit deal must be agreed by March 2019 at the latest, and that's just the divorce, never mind the complexities of sorting out a new UK-EU relationship.

Also of note - no matter what some high-profile British politicians like Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson might insist - there is in fact no wiggle room in any EU paper published to date to allow UK cherry-picking from the single market, along the lines of 'we want to be part of the single market for cars and financial services, but we don't want to accept freedom of movement'.

Alongside the smug ambience at EU HQ as regards Brexit there is also a growing sense of coldness.

"We've gone through the five stages of mourning in rapid succession," is something you're often told here. "From huge sadness at the UK departing, to anger, remorse and now matter-of-fact acceptance."

Unlike normal trade deals between the EU and third countries, Brexit from the EU perspective is about destruction, not creating something new and filled with potential.

Whatever emerges from Brexit will be worse, it's felt, than what existed before - and many in the EU want Brexit to be difficult.

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Media caption"We Europeans have to take our destiny in our own hands," says Mrs Merkel

Brussels is more than aware that Euroscepticsm is alive and well across the continent. If liberal governments like President Emmanuel Macron's in France disappoint voters, for example, populist nationalists could yet win the day.

Mainstream EU leaders are anxious to demonstrate that exiting the club doesn't pay. Brexit has to hurt, they think, to damage the arguments of those in other countries pushing to leave the bloc,

From now until March 2019, the UK exists in an uncomfortable twilight zone - legally still an EU member, emotionally already viewed as an outsider.

The pre-negotiations rhetoric these 12 months has been bullish and threatening on both sides.

That led to a plea from a former judge at the European Court of Justice: for the EU and Britain's new government after 8 June to keep in mind that this is a divorce, not a war.

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