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New Uncertainties Surround Brussels Meeting on Brexit

11 Jun 2017 5:59 pm
By Valentina Pop 

BRUSSELS -- European Union and British officials are scheduled to meet Monday to discuss the timeline of Brexit talks amid skepticism in the EU capital that a swift deal can be reached given political uncertainty in London.

The meeting, which will be conducted at civil-servant level, is the first encounter between the EU and U.K. since last week's U.K. election, with British Prime Minister Theresa May failing in her attempt to bolster her Conservative party's parliamentary majority.

The meeting originally was planned to set the date and topics to be discussed in the first round of formal negotiations, which EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier had tentatively scheduled for June 19.

Some uncertainties surround the nature of Mrs. May's governing coalition and potentially new negotiating lines emerging from her cabinet. EU officials are wary whether the Monday meeting will bring much clarity beyond the U.K.'s wish to open talks soon.

A spokesman for the U.K. government said that "we have been clear that we want to make a start on negotiations and we continue to engage with official counterparts in the EU and Brussels ahead of the talks commencing."

With a weakened prime minister in London, whose leadership could soon be open to challengers from within her Conservative party, EU officials wonder how meaningful the talks can be, even if they were to start as planned.

"Uncertainty about how long she will stay in power and whether she can deliver on a compromise is the key question," said one senior EU official dealing with Brexit.

A second official said that while the EU had "no choice" but to negotiate with London, it wasn't under any illusions about the possibility that the entire exercise might be "a waste of time" if there is a change in government.

"The civil servants will have to do the work. But I personally do not see May's signature under the final Article 50 deal," said the second official, in reference to the EU treaty article spelling out the conditions for leaving the bloc.

Mrs. May's negotiating position ahead of the election was that Brexit talks should focus both on the divorce and on the future relationship with the bloc, which she defined as a broad free-trade agreement with provisions for cooperation on security and other issues.

But the EU's position is that talks can turn to the future relationship only after "sufficient progress" on the divorce matters, an assessment that needs the approval of all 27 EU leaders.

While the initial talks are likely to focus on issues where both sides want a deal, such as on the rights of EU citizens living in the U.K. and the rights of British citizens in the EU, there will be considerable reluctance to hammer out final compromises on contentious matters. Why settle, for instance, on how much money the U.K. still owes the bloc, when a new British government might agree on a higher sum?

And it is the EU that has the upper hand on the timing of negotiations: Under EU rules, the U.K. must have a Brexit deal signed and ratified by March 2019 or face a disorderly exit unless the EU countries agree to extend the deadline.

Dutch foreign minister Bert Koenders said Friday in The Hague that the British election "created uncertainty and uncertainty is not good seeing as the clock is ticking. This requires a clear negotiation mandate."

--Laurence Norman in Brussels contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 11, 2017 13:59 ET (17:59 GMT)

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