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Brexit? Yes, But the Show Must Go On

Ever since the result of the UK referendum was announced, the leitmotif of all public statements made by EU representatives has been: no negotiation before notification. Although informal discussions – not negotiations – may be taking place, it would seem that both the EU and the UK are striving to agree on a position internally before taking a seat at the negotiation table. Whereas in the UK some preferences seem to be emerging (Prime Minister Theresa May has ruled out the use of points based immigration system), the EU has been relatively silent on how they envisage the future immigration relationship with the UK.

Yet, throughout the summer EU leaders met on several occasions to discuss what post-Brexit EU could look like. On August 18, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, met with Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. Four days later, Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Matteo Renzi gathered in Italy to discuss the future of the EU without the UK. These informal meetings have not resulted in any remarkable declarations. Merkel simply stated: ‘We respect Great Britain's decision but we also want to make clear that the other 27 are banking on a safe and prospering Europe’.

While it is still unclear which institution will lead withdrawal negotiations on behalf of the EU (the European Commission or the Council), both institutions have announced their negotiation leaders. Didier Seeuws –  former chief of staff of the former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy – will be the Council’s head of negotiations. Michel Barnier (former European Commissioner) has been appointed as chief negotiator on behalf of the Commission, in charge of preparing and conducting the negotiations with the UK. He will take up his position on 1 October 2016.

To add even more to the confusion, the European Parliament also nominated a point man for Brexit negotiations: Guy Verhofstadt (Belgian Member of the European Parliament). Although the European Parliament does not have a formal role in the negotiation process, it will certainly be involved from the very beginning and informed throughout the process. In fact, the Council needs to obtain the Parliament’s consent before concluding the withdrawal agreement. This was also the stressed by Verhofstadt during a press conference in Strasbourg on September 13.

The following day, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his long-awaited State of the Union speech. He emphasised three main ideas:

  •     EU leaders prefer to see the withdrawal notification delivered as soon as possible, to enable the EU and the UK to rebuild their relationship on a friendly basis. Indeed – as Verhofstadt underlined, the EU wants the withdrawal process completed with an agreement in place before the end of this legislative term, i.e. 2019.

  •     There cannot be a Single Market à la carte. The free movement of citizens is part of the Single Market, which means that full access to the Single Market implies an acceptance of the free movement rules.

  •     The EU regrets, but accepts the UK’s decision. Although it is an important topic, Brexit must not dominate the European agenda.

Certainly, Brexit will not dominate the agenda of the first major European Council meeting at which the UK will not participate: the informal summit in Bratislava, September 16. The focus will be on how to consolidate the EU despite the UK leaving. So, there seems to be a common ground among EU politicians: ‘the show must go on’. Mourning must end both in the EU and in the UK among those who regret the referendum result. The priority should be understanding how to build a healthy and solid future relationship between the two partners.

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