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Talking behind the scenes of Brexit

By Fu Jing | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2017-04-30 07:33
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The decision-making process of the European Union can be painfully slow and often leaders need to burn the midnight oil to reach agreement. But at this Saturday’s summit to agree negotiation guidelines for the UK's exit from the EU, the leaders of the 27 remaining EU states were uncharacteristically quick.

One month after London notified Brussels of its intention to leave, the European Union leaders, except that of UK, took minutes to finalize their basic principles for the two-year talks on how the UK departs from the bloc.

The quicker-than-usual decision demonstrated the unity of EU leaders as they insisted that the protection of the rights of citizens affected by Brexit, the financial settlement and the status of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, would take priority over all other issues.

The talks will not formally start until after the UK’s general election on 8th June but should end in autumn 2018, which would allow both sides to go through their domestic approval procedures before the two-year exit deadline, 29th March, 2019.

The EU has created a complex and sophisticated set of laws, rights and regulations to allow a free flow of people, capital, technologies and goods. The dismantling of this system means the talks will be extremely tough, especially given the limited time allowed.

Fortunately, both sides have already pointed out that the rights of EU citizens in UK and Britons in EU and their families should be protected. This should mean that the lives of 4.5 million people should face minimal disruption as a result of Brexit.

The EU is determined to ensure the delivery of European projects, agreed by the EU 28 countries, including the UK, but will now be implemented by the remaining 27 members. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator recently hinted the UK should honor its commitments. This includes the €90 billion European Social Fund to help Europeans develop skills to find work and the €200 billion European Regional Development Fund to support isolated regions.

The €315 billion Juncker Investment Plan and the almost €80 billion Horizon 2020 research programme also need to be sorted out between UK and EU. The relocation of the two London-based EU organisations, the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines Agency, which employ roughly 1,000 staff, will also form part of the negotiations.

Brussels has agreed on a “phased” strategy, which meant the UK and the EU must sort out their past commitments before discussing their new relationship. London wanted to negotiate a new partnership and divorce at the same time, but this has been firmly rejected by its EU partners.

Brussels should have enough confidence to let the UK go with the minimum of fuss. The reality is a smooth transition and a return to as close to normal business is in everyone's best interest, including the UK, the EU and the rest of the world.

A recent European Parliament survey found 57 percent of Europeans say the EU membership is a good thing. This percentage is almost as high as it was in 2007 before the 2008 financial crisis eroded Europeans’ trust in the integrative machinery.

However, the Brexit process could again test the trust of Europeans in the EU project. It took eight years for EU and Canada to finalise a free trade agreement and it is unlikely London and Brussels will form new trade and investment relations overnight. A vacuum will be damaging and it is the responsibility of politicians, on both sides, to ensure this does not happen.

The UK should leave the EU in two years time as its voters made their decision, but it makes sense to ensure that as few new barriers are erected between the EU and the UK as possible. In dealing with Brexit and its consequences, pragmatism equals vision, especially when dealing with the lives of ordinary families.

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