The EU’s Brexit Position: What You Missed While May Fought Back

  • EU’s draft position sets out stance on the exit bill, citizens
  • Other issues include nuclear waste and EU court oversight

Michel Barnier

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

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Five hours before Theresa May accused European Union officials of interfering with the upcoming U.K. election, the EU produced its most detailed Brexit negotiating plans yet.

Overtaken by Wednesday’s events in London, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier’s provisional mandate nevertheless spells out the bloc’s red lines as the clock ticks down to the formal launch of talks soon after the British head to the polls on June 8. Here are the key points:

The bill

The “financial settlement,” as the EU calls it, still doesn’t have a figure on it, and isn’t likely to for some time. In fact, the number, estimated to be somewhere between 40 billion euros ($43.7 billion) and 100 billion euros, could continue changing right up until Brexit day as EU projects come and go.

QuickTake Brexit’s Costs

The EU is looking for the U.K. to agree only on a methodology for the calculation as a first step. The bloc wants it to take into account Britain’s promised contributions to the central EU budget, the U.K.’s obligations toward EU bodies such as the European Investment Bank, and its participation in specific projects like the program for refugees in Turkey.

The EU also wants the U.K. to pay all the costs associated with Brexit, including the relocation of EU agencies out of London. EU officials ruled out the U.K. having any claim on EU assets that could offset the size of the bill.

“We must settle the accounts, nothing more and nothing less,” Barnier said.

A deal on citizens’ rights isn’t going to be easy

The U.K. will get a shock if it thinks assuring citizens’ rights will be straight forward. The EU has a long list of rights it wants to see protected for what officials say are around 4.5 million EU citizens living in the U.K. and British people living in the EU, and many more who have moved back to their home countries after accumulating rights.

The message to Britain is clear: the EU wants those people to “live their lives as if Brexit never happened,” according to one EU official.

For anyone moving to the U.K. before Brexit day, the EU wants to ensure full pension and social security rights and comparable tax advantages for as long as they live. They also should have the ability to gain permanent residency after five years of continuous stay. 

The EU also wants the deal to include the spouses and children of the citizens, too, even if they join them in the U.K. after the withdrawal date. When home secretary, May fought against the right of British citizens to bring non-EU spouses to Britain so this could quickly become a flashpoint.

Leave behind Europe’s courts? Not so fast

While May has vowed to stop the EU Court of Justice from having any oversight in Britain, the EU’s negotiating mandate sets out several reasons why that shouldn’thappen.

An EU citizen living in Britain, having acquired pre-Brexit rights, should have recourse to Europe’s courts if not satisfied with a British Supreme Court decision, the mandate says.

The ECJ also should have a role in ensuring the U.K. pays the agreed bill as well as enforcing the agreement as a whole.

“Whenever EU law is concerned, for example with regard to citizens, we must rely in the long term on the EU Court of Justice,” Barnier said.

They won’t talk about the future yet, and they mean it

The EU has been saying for months that it won’t comply with the prime minister’s request to start talks on a future trade agreement in parallel to the divorce deal.

If there was any doubt about their seriousness, that was extinguished in the negotiating mandate. It doesn’t even include any reference to the EU’s position on the matter, only that the EU will start talking about it (what it calls “phase 2”) once the 27 remaining countries decide that “sufficient progress” has been made on the divorce agreement.

But the EU does see the need for transition

Neither side wants the U.K. to fall off a cliff when it leaves the EU, even if a trade agreement isn’t in place.

The EU document specifically refers to “bridges toward the foreseeable framework for the future relationship” as being needed in the next negotiating mandate. But again, only after “sufficient progress” so it’s in the U.K.’s interest to play ball.

And ‘sufficient progress’ means?

Only the EU’s 27 leaders can agree on that -- and they have to do so unanimously before “phase 2” can begin.

But on citizens’ rights, for example, the U.K. has to give “very clear commitments and guarantees rather than nice rhetoric,” an EU official said.

Brexit means... some EU nuclear waste becomes U.K. nuclear waste

The negotiating mandate says the Brexit agreement should ensure the transfer of ownership to the U.K. of "special fissile material located on the territory of the European Atomic Energy Community," the organization that stewards nuclear cooperation between the bloc’s members.

That means that nuclear waste currently stored in the U.K. would no longer be an EU responsibility, even though much of it originated in the rest of Europe.

There are other complications

The EU lists other areas where there needs to be agreement:

  • Pending European court cases involving the U.K.
  • Ongoing state aid investigations being carried out by the European Commission
  • The recognition of qualifications obtained in the EU before Brexit
  • Rules for the protection of personal data that EU countries have given the U.K.

Brexit’s lost hour

The two sides don’t even agree on when Britain will officially leave. The U.K. has said it envisages leaving the bloc when London’s Big Ben chimes at midnight on March 29, 2019.

The EU’s mandate refers to midnight Brussels time -- which is only 11 p.m. in the U.K.

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