Mon, Jun 19, 2017 - Page 5 News List

Brexit talks start today in Brussels

AFP, LONDON

The UK is to start historic talks today on leaving the EU while still mourning the victims of a devastating fire and reeling from an election that has badly weakened the government.

British Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis is to travel to Brussels to meet Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to initiate hugely complex withdrawal negotiations that are expected to last less than two years.

Worried by immigration and loss of sovereignty, Britain last year voted to end its decades-old membership of the 28-nation bloc — the first nation ever to do so — in a shock referendum result.

The government has developed a strategy of “hard Brexit” to cut the numbers of immigrants arriving from the EU at the expense of Britain’s membership of the European single market and customs union.

However that entire approach has come under question following a general election earlier this month in which British Prime Minister Theresa May lost the Conservative Party’s parliamentary majority.

Ordinary Britons are also beginning to feel the cost of Brexit because of higher import prices caused by a plunge in the pound and businesses are increasingly worried about losing trade access.

May has clung on to power since the election but has so far failed to strike an agreement with Northern Ireland’s ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that would allow her to govern.

The Conservatives now only have 317 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons and need the support of the DUP’s 10 members of parliament for a razor-thin majority.

The government is due to present its program on Wednesday at the opening of parliament, which is to be followed by a key confidence vote days later.

Adding to what Queen Elizabeth II called the “somber national mood” have been three terrorist attacks in three months and a fire in a London tower block in which 58 people are presumed dead.

SOFTENING

The government’s current weakness has helped fuel criticism of its approach to Brexit, although pro-EU campaigners’ hopes that it could rethink the decision to leave the EU have come to nothing.

British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond has led calls for a softer strategy on Brexit, prioritizing the economy.

“We should be protecting jobs, protecting economic growth and protecting prosperity,” he said in Luxembourg last week.

Other members of May’s Conservatives have called for a more inclusive approach on Brexit strategy that would include the voices of opposition parties, as well as the views of Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both voted to stay in the EU.

Scottish Conservative Party Leader Ruth Davidson, who is newly influential after winning 13 seats in Scotland, has said Britain should prioritize “freedom to trade and our economic growth.”

CONSENSUS

Today’s negotiations are to open at 11am in Brussels with 90 minutes of talks between Barnier and Davis, followed by a working lunch between the pair and a press conference.

Working groups will be set up to focus on three key areas — the status of EU citizens living in Britain and British citizens living in the EU; the divorce bill for Britain; and the future of the Northern Irish border with EU member Ireland.

Britain and the EU are already at odds over the order of the talks, with London insisting future trade ties should be discussed at the same time as the divorce, which Brussels has so far refused to do.

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