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Europe

EU negotiator’s diplomatic tone belies rough start to Brexit talks

media European Chief Negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier in Brussels on Wednesday Reuters/Eric Vidal

The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier set out the bloc’s mandate for divorce talks with Britain on Wednesday, adopting a diplomatic tone for what is sure to be a turbulent start to negotiations.

At the European Commission press room in Brussels, Barnier outlined a two-phased approach to the Brexit talks, the first of which would cover financial settlements, citizens’ rights and the question of the UK’s border with the EU in Ireland.

Barnier expressed hope that these could be settled by autumn in order to get onto the second phase dealing with of future trade relations, but he did not define any criteria for these settlements and warned there would be no easy answers.

“Some have created the illusion that Brexit would have no material impact on our lives or that negotiations can be concluded quickly and painlessly,” Barnier said. “This is not the case. We need sound solutions, we need legal precision, and this will take time.”

EU may seek billions from UK

The financial aspect of the separation has grown increasingly sensitive in recent months, with the Financial Times reporting the EU would seek 100 billion euros for the UK’s previous commitments to common projects.

Britain’s Brexit Minister David Davis flat out rejected that amount, which is significantly higher than the ballpark figure of 60 billion euros floated by Brussels just weeks ago.

Barnier dismissed any estimations, saying the method to calculate the amount was yet to be determined, and sought to counter perceptions of the issue as a penalty for the UK’s decision to leave the bloc.

“There is no punishment,” he said. “There is no ‘Brexit bill’. The financial settlement is only about settling accounts.”

Maria Demertzis, deputy director of Brussels-based economic think tank Bruegel, said Barnier’s remarks underline just how contentious the issue will be.

“[The EU] are going to be looking to land on the upper side of the range that has been quoted, and naturally the Brits will be looking to land on the lower side of these estimates,” Demertzis says.

“They keep saying there are good spirits and we all aim for good relationships but you get the impression it’s going to be hard and there are going to be a lot of disagreements and the final agreement is far from certain.”

Bitter divorce

Demertzis is also critical of the phased negotiation, which she says does not set the ground for good relations in the future.

“On the trade side, there are common purposes, there are good deals beneficial to everybody,” she says. “If you start with a divorce settlement which is bitter, you will have set a tone that is not necessarily amenable to good results, and I think that is a mistake.”

Barnier followed his remarks on the principles of the talks with a second conference on technical issues and methods, in a move that lets the EU get ahead of the UK government, which simultaneously looking to the 8 June general election.

“Strategically, it is a very smart and good move by the European Union, because it will force the British government, probably even before the elections, to make it absolutely clear what its position is,” says Adam Lazowski, professor of EU law at the University of Westminster in London.

“What we’ve heard so far from the government here, are vague concepts and ideas but not detailed negotiating positions,” Lazowski continues. “I am not convinced that the government in the United Kingdom is fully aware how technical the negotiations will be.”

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