Brexit: the view from Brussels

Mass immigration from the European Union was a major factor in the June 2016 referendum that saw Britons vote to leave the EU (AFP Photo/JUSTIN TALLIS) (AFP/File)
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Brussels (AFP) - Theresa May's proposals for a hard Brexit have met a mixed response in the European Union, where it always takes 28 countries to tango, and where many feel Britain may be dancing with two left feet.

Here are the views from Brussels and other capitals on the British prime minister's demands:

- Single market -

May's announcement that Britain would leave Europe's single market in order to control EU immigration came as a relief.

Many officials had feared difficult negotiations as Britain tried to unpick the bloc's "four freedoms" of movement of people, goods, capital and services.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the "clarity" while EU President Donald Tusk said London had "finally understood and accepted" the four freedoms were inseparable.

Officials also believe it will make it easier for the EU to maintain unity.

"In some ways a hard Brexit is better than years of negotiations. It's easy for us to be united, we are not asking for anything," one senior EU diplomat told AFP.

- New trade deal -

But Europeans see problems with May's demand for the "greatest possible access" to the European single market through a "new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free-trade agreement".

Firstly many detect a backdoor attempt to get the benefits of the EU such as zero tariffs, without the downsides of membership.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's Brexit negotiator, said it was an "illusion that you can go out of the single market and that you can cherry pick."

Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, meanwhile insisted that any future deal "necessarily needs to be inferior to membership".

The second is the sheer time and effort needed to reach trade agreements, with a recent EU-Canada pact taking seven years.

Key questions would revolve around what sectors it would include. Say, for example, that Britain gets a deal on financial services in the City of London in exchange for the European car industry getting benefits, one senior EU official told AFP. That would be fine for big auto-maker Germany, but what about other countries that rely on other sectors?

- 'Phase in' -

May's call for a "phased approach delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit" refers to the likely need for a transitional arrangement.

This would cover the period between the end of the official two-year divorce process and whenever the new trade pact comes into effect.

This would avoid the "cliff edge" of trade tariffs being suddenly introduced.

But in practice European officials say this is a minefield.

Would Britain have to keep unchecked immigration during this period? Would it still be subject to the European Court of Justice? Would it still have to pay contributions? How long would it last?

The European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has said that the EU could only agree to a transitional deal once the shape of an eventual trade pact has been fully sketched out during the two-year period.

Barnier also stressed after May's speech that an "orderly exit is (a) prerequisite for future partnership".

This raises the spectre of a "disorderly" Brexit in which Britain cannot even agree on the formal divorce agreement with the EU, which is separate to any future trade deal.

- The divorce bill -

The divorce agreement is one area that May barely covered but which is very much in the minds of EU officials.

This only covers the exit bill that Britain has to pay, and reciprocal rights for Britons living in the EU and vice versa, and must be sealed within two years.

The EU has estimated the bill Britain will have to pay at 55 billion to 60 billion euros, EU sources told AFP. This includes budgetary requirements and pension liabilities for all EU officials, not just British eurocrats.

"They will obviously try to get the figure down, then we can talk about instalments" if necessary, a senior EU figure said.

- The warnings -

May warned the EU that trying to punish Britain to discourage others from leaving would be an "an act of calamitous self-harm" and that Britain would walk away if it got a bad deal

British politicians evoked World War II and newspapers hailed her tough stance, comparing her to "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher, but European officials played it down.

Tusk said May's comments on Britain's ties to Europe were "closer to Winston Churchill than those of President-elect Donald Trump". Muscat meanwhile insisted they were 'not a declaration of war:".

Officials also said May's warnings about the risk of the EU disintegrating is also overblown.

"The political resilience is bigger than people realise," the senior EU official said.

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