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EU backs Brexit transition demands as tensions rock May

European Union Chief Negotiator in charge of Brexit negotiations Britain Michel Barnier (R) arrives for a General affairs council debate on the article 50 concerning Brexit in Brussels at the EU headquarters in Brussels on January 29, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS

The EU adopted red lines Monday for a transition period that binds Britain by the bloc’s laws for nearly two years after Brexit without having any policy-making power.

The plan has sparked deep divisions in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, with eurosceptic lawmakers saying it leaves Britain a “vassal state” of Brussels.

European affairs ministers took just two minutes to green-light instructions for the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on the transition, which the bloc wants to run from March 29, 2019 — when Britain leaves the EU — until December 31, 2020.

Barnier’s deputy Sabine Weyand said a meeting of European affairs ministers in Brussels “adopts guidelines for Brexit negotiations within two minutes: status quo transition without institutional representation, lasting… to 31 December 2020”.

The so-called negotiating directives say Britain would retain access to the EU’s single market during that time, but in return must follow EU rules “as if it were a member state”, without any voting rights.

‘No voice around table’
Irish European affairs minister Helen McEntee meanwhile ruled out Britain having any power to vet EU laws passed during the transition, the Financial Times newspaper reported, saying London could not be allowed to undermine the single market.

“When the UK leaves the European Union they will not be a voice around the table,” she said.

Transition talks with Barnier’s counterpart David Davis could begin as early as this week, with the aim of completing them by March so negotiations on future trade ties can start, European sources said.

Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, meanwhile urged Britain to agree “as soon as possible” on the legal text of December’s in-principle agreement on the terms of the divorce.

That deal paved the way for the EU and Britain to move on to discussing the transition.

Britain asked for a transition period of around two years to ease the impact of Brexit on people, public services and businesses, and to provide more time to conclude any eventual EU-UK trade pact.

But May’s Downing Street office warned the talks could be tough.

“This will be a negotiation and there will naturally be some distance in the detail of our starting positions,” the prime minister’s spokesman said.

With dangerous rifts emerging openly in May’s government over the plan and eurosceptic MPs baying for blood, Davis and other top ministers tried to show a united front at the weekend.

Despite previous differences, Davis, finance minister Philip Hammond and business secretary Greg Clark wrote a joint letter saying the transition would be “strictly time-limited” and that Britain is still leaving the bloc.

But Jacob Rees-Mogg — who leads a group of more than 50 Conservative Brexiteer MPs and made the “vassal state” comment — warned that staying closely aligned to the EU risked reducing Brexit to a “damage limitation exercise”.

Trump slights May’s negotiation
US President Donald Trump added to the pressure on May, saying in remarks aired Sunday that if he was in charge of the Brexit negotiations he would have “negotiated it differently” and taken a “tougher stand”.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian meanwhile touted his country as a post-Brexit alternative, telling Japanese businesses on Monday they must realise that Britain’s EU days are “over”.

Some member states have called for the transition itself to be extendable if the EU and Britain have still not managed to sort out a future relationship deal when it ends in 2020.

But France has led opposition to the idea, and the guidelines say the transition must be “clearly defined and precisely limited in time”.

Davis is meanwhile on a collision course with the EU over his claim last week that Britain could negotiate and even sign its own free trade deals around the world during the transition period.

EU officials insist Britain can negotiate but not conclude any deals.



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