“The European Union will be ready to open talks on a future trade deal with the United Kingdom once ‘sufficient progress’ is made on terms of exit” is one of the main guidelines that the EU presented today in Malta. During a meeting of EU centre-right leaders in Valletta, Donald Tusk unveiled how the EU aims to negotiate the withdrawal of the UK.
Forty-eight hours ago, Tusk had received Theresa May’s letter, in which the British prime minister had officially announced the will of her country to withdraw from the European establishment that had been a member of for 60 years. The president of the European Council presented the guidelines to the media representatives and, simultaneously, the Council distributed the draft to the EU27 appointed officials in Brussels, in order to evaluate and improve it.
Tusk said that talks for a future trade deal can’t start unless “sufficient progress” is made in terms of Brexit. Adding this phrase in such an important part of the guidelines, means that the EU hardliners against the UK, didn’t prevail, at least for now. Some EU leaders wanted to make an example of the UK and prevent other countries from joining the club of countries that may think about exiting. The European Council seems to have left a door open for negotiations concerning a future trade deal, if it is satisfied with the progress of the talks on the basic principles of exit. Not satisfying the hardliners, doesn’t mean that the Council will satisfy the British side. The word “sufficient” can be used as a double-edged sword because in case the Council doesn’t achieve what it wants, it can delay or cancel in general the trade talks that the British side wants. With the large international companies in a limbo concerning their future in Britain, Theresa May just can’t afford a possible delay, because the economy simply doesn’t like uncertainty.
EU’s priority is clearly how Brexit will affect the citizens that live in Britain and the 3.5 million EU citizens living and working in Britain, most of them in London, and the 27 EU countries hosting 1.5 million UK citizens. The Council stresses the need to think of people first, and to settle their status using every possible guarantee. Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, which holds the EU presidency this semester, repeatedly said that the EU won’t allow for the lives of citizens to be used as a bargaining chip on the negotiation table.
The Council will seek to prevent any legal vacuum once the Treaties cease to apply to the UK, and address all possible uncertainties. Tusk didn’t neglect to mention that the EU will insure, through the negotiations, that the UK fulfills its obligations towards its counterparts. The issue of Ireland and Northern Ireland borders will be a matter for which the EU will try to find flexible solutions. Donald Tusk commented that the discussions that will occur in the next months will be complex and, sometimes, confrontational, but as he said that “there is no way around it.”
Joseph Muscat said in the press conference that “there is no room for parallel negotiations and the EC will decide if the progress is sufficient to go on.” The two EU politicians denied any possibility of the UK negotiating separately with the EU members. Muscat said that Michel Barnier, the Commission’s chief negotiator, will be the only negotiator on behalf of the EU, and that there is no possibility of the UK striking deals in bilateral talks with any EU member.
Asked by a journalist on the size of the final Brexit bill, the president of the Council said that “I don’t call it a Brexit bill, it’s not a penalty but only a commitment. It is only fair towards to all those people and communities to whom we, all 28 members, promised and owe this money.” The Maltese prime minister added that “the UK government recognised its commitments in the letter that was delivered to the president of the EC, and obligations must be respected.”
In the matter of common security and, as media said, the Theresa May’s concealed threat in case a deal is not made, Tusk said that “security is not a bargaining chip. Terrorism and security are common problems and there must be an understanding. We are decent partners so I am ruling out the media interpretation.”