Opinion / Fu Jing

For EU, pragmatism equals vision when dealing with Brexit

By Fu Jing (China Daily) Updated: 2017-05-02 07:26

The decision-making process of the European Union can be painfully slow, and often leaders need to burn the midnight oil to reach an agreement. But at this Saturday's summit to agree negotiation guidelines for the United Kingdom's exit from the EU, the leaders of the 27 remaining EU member states were uncharacteristically quick.

One month after London formally notified Brussels of its intention to leave the EU, the bloc's leaders took just minutes to finalize their basic principles for the two-year talks on how the UK departs from the EU.

The quicker-than-usual decision demonstrated the unity of the 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 June 8 but should end in autumn 2018, which would allow both sides to go through their domestic approval procedures before the two-year exit deadline, March 29, 2019.

The EU has created a complex and sophisticated set of laws, rights and regulations to allow 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 emphasized that the rights of EU citizens in the UK and Britons in the EU and their families should be protected. This should mean that the lives of 4.5 million people will face minimal disruption as a result of Brexit.

The EU is determined to ensure the delivery of European projects, agreed by the EU 28 member states, including the UK, but will now be implemented by the remaining 27 members. Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator recently hinted that the UK should honor its commitments, which include the €90 billion ($98.1 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 program also need to be sorted out between the UK and the EU. The relocation of the two London-based EU organizations, the European Banking Authority and European Medicines Agency, which employ roughly 1,000 staff, will also form part of the negotiations. Brussels has agreed on a "phased" strategy, which means 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.

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

A recent European Parliament survey found that 57 percent of Europeans say EU membership is a good thing. This percentage is almost as high as it was in 2007 before the 2008 global financial crisis eroded Europeans' trust in the integrative machinery. But the Brexit process could again test the trust of Europeans in the EU project. It took eight years for the EU and Canada to finalize a free trade agreement and it is unlikely that London and Brussels can forge a new trade and investment relationship 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 decided, 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.

The author is deputy chief of China Daily European Bureau.

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