EU leaders frustrated by UK’s uncertain approach to Brexit – The Guardian

EU leaders frustrated by UK’s uncertain approach to Brexit – The Guardian

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European frustration over Britain’s muddled approach to Brexit boiled over on Tuesday amid fears that a post-election retreat from hard Brexit by the UK government could deepen the chaotic start to talks.

Despite some fresh progress on procedural talks, formal negotiations are still due to start in a matter of days with little clear indication of whether the UK government will soften its core demands following the loss of its parliamentary majority and desired negotiating mandate.

Confusion intensified after the surprise departure of two of the four ministers at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DexEU), David Jones and George Bridges, as well as the Treasury minister responsible for liaising with the City on Brexit matters, Lucy Neville-Rolfe.

Meanwhile, in a sign of growing international tension, a public row erupted when the Danish finance minister warned Britain that the country needed to be realistic about its importance standing alone on the global stage.

“There are two kinds of European nations,” Kristian Jensen, told an audience at the Road to Brexit conference in Copenhagen. “There are small nations and there are countries have not yet realised they are small nations.” It brought an angry response from the British ambassador to Denmark, Dominic Schroeder, who insisted he saw no sign “of a diminished or diminishing power”.

Guy Verhofstadt, the Brexit coordinator for the European parliament said at a press conference in Strasbourg that the EU was impatient for the negotiations to start. “We wait for the moment the position of the UK. It is unclear, in any case for me, if the UK government will stick to the line that they announced in the letter of 29 March or whether they will change it taking into account the outcome of the election,” he said.

It is a view matched by an exasperated mood among European diplomats in London. “You [the UK] don’t even know what you want any more, let alone how to get it,” one EU ambassador in London told the Guardian.

Whitehall insiders claimed the mood at DexEU remains positive, despite the loss of half its ministers in just 24 hours. “This is what we’ve been working toward and we want to get going too,” said one.

Its permanent secretary, Olly Robbins, met Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, for preliminary talks on Monday and is said to have made “good progress” on procedural questions such as the rhythm of talks but a start date for these formal negotiations is unlikely to be confirmed until Thursday.

In this first crucial face-to-face encounter, the British diplomats came armed with a plan to start technical talks led by civil servants, to give the prime minister breathing space to fix a deal with the Democratic Unionist party and agree on the programme for the Queen’s speech. Barnier flatly rejected the idea, as he wants to ensure the UK’s chief negotiator has a mandate from the British government before any talks can begin.

It was the first long-awaited meeting between the the British and the EU to discuss “talks about talks”, but the EU side found the British unable to name a date. Barnier told the British he was open to a number of start dates. “We are flexible, we can do this Thursday, we can do it on Tuesday 20th,” he is reported to have said.

The UK government source said it “didn’t recognise” EU claims that 19 June was already agreed, hinting that a fast-moving Queen’s speech could mean a small delay. Another British diplomat suggested the European commission would force Britain to publicly call for an embarrassing postponement rather than voluntarily budge from its stated start date.

Senior EU officials are aghast at the chaos in Britain and increasingly concerned that neither the government nor Labour has a clear plan for Brexit. But the confusion is also attracting growing criticism from Brexit supporters in London. “Top Whitehall officials are screaming that DexEU … is a total shambles and disaster is likely: news today just tip of iceberg,” wrote Dominic Cummings, a leading leave campaigner, after the departure of Jones and Bridges.

But signs of a potential shift in the British position grew on Tuesday after a ministerial reshuffle that boosted the proportion of of remain supporters. May’s new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, is a remainer who blames Brexit for costing Tories votes, and the cabinet now also includes ex-Europe minister David Lidington as lord chancellor.

Even Michael Gove, another new arrival and a prominent leave campaigner, said the government should now proceed with the “maximum possible consensus” on Brexit. “We also need to ensure that the concerns of people who voted remain – many of whom now actually want us to press ahead with leaving the European union as quickly and in as orderly fashion as possible – we need to make sure that their concerns are part of our conversation,” he told the BBC.

Former party leader and one-time eurosceptic William Hague backed some Labour calls for a cross-party commission to take charge of Brexit. Such a move is likely to be welcomed across Europe but the tetchy mood, even among potential allies, suggests there may be limited patience for any major delay.

Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen, the secretary general of the European council, president Donald Tusk’s most senior official, appeared to rule out any extension of the two years of negotiations allowed under article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

He said: “It has to take two years. The formal position is that it would take unanimity [of the EU27] to extend the timeline and I don’t think there will be an interest in doing this because this whole affair is disruptive, uncertainty is disruptive. It takes an awful lot of energy and therefore I don’t think on either side there will be any interest in extending the time period. Therefore we just have to get as far as we can get.”

Jensen called on May to reflect on the general election result and seek a softer Brexit that could win the support of parliament, but crucially give the EU confidence the prime minister is able to deliver.

Speaking at the conference held in the Danish parliament in Copenhagen, he said: “What is Brexit? It’s a good question. Because the slogan Brexit means Brexit, doesn’t mean anything. It’s like breakfast means breakfast.

“I hope that the general election will mean a time out, a pause in their direction they are taking and a chance to rethink the UK and EU 27 go on forward.” Jensen added: “I believe Brexit is, sorry to say, a disaster. “Not for Europe but for the UK.”

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