EU starts internal bickering ahead of Brexit talks

Raf Casert
Associated Press

Brussels — A European Union summit where 27 leaders were supposed to show a united stand in exit negotiations with Britain quickly descended into discord Thursday when the EU legislature demanded a much bigger role in the Brexit talks.

Even though the EU Parliament will have to approve any Brexit scenario at the end of the talks, the EU nations are planning to give the Commission pick Michel Barnier the chief position at the negotiating table while leaving the legislature, which has often been critical of Britain, in a minor role.

The parliament has increased its decision-making powers over the last decade and has often clashed with Brexit politicians like UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Because of its diverse political makeup, the EU Parliament could become an unpredictable player in the approval process.

EU Parliament President Martin Schulz told the EU leaders that “to relegate the European Parliament to a secondary role” would put the outcome of Brexit talks in danger.

“If we are not adequately involved, we may not be able to give our consent. And in this situation, the UK would face the hardest Brexit possible,” he said.

If parliament rejects and subsequently vetoes a deal, Britain could just drop out of the EU and its enormous single market without any political safety net — which has been described as a “hard” exit that many experts say could damage the British economy.

In a parliamentary proposal seen by The Associated Press, the legislature will demand a seat at the table “in all negotiation sessions.” And the parliament’s chief official on the Brexit talks, Guy Verhofstadt, has threatened to start parallel talks with the British, a move which would further complicate the negotiating process.

“If the Council does not want to have the Parliament in the room, we will negotiate directly with the British,” Verhofstadt said Thursday in a statement.

In a draft statement for the summit dinner Thursday night that will be held without British Prime Minister Theresa May, the 27 other EU leaders will agree that Barnier “will be invited to keep the European Parliament closely and regularly informed,” little more.

Barnier has said the divorce negotiations with Britain would have to be finished in as little as 18 months when they are triggered by the end of March — but others say the whole process could take much longer.

Britain’s former top civil servant, Gus O’Donnell, said he thought sealing a final deal would take “years and years.”

“I can imagine it taking at least five years to get through all of the details,” he told the BBC. “And I imagine some of the transitional arrangements may be longer than that.”

When asked about it as she entered the EU summit, May did not address the concern. But the British leader did say she was not angry about the EU dinner without her.

“It’s right that the other leaders prepare for those (Brexit) negotiations, as we have been,” she told reporters. “We will be leaving the EU, we want that to be a smooth and as orderly a process as possible. It’s not just in our interests. It’s in the interest of the rest of Europe.”