It was back on 21 March that European Council President Donald Tusk (pictured), during a briefing with Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, called today's (29 April) meeting of the EU-27, without the UK, to adopt the guidelines for the Brexit talks due to begin between the UK and EU, writes James Drew.
"As you all know, I personally wish the UK hadn't chosen to leave the EU, but the majority of British voters decided otherwise. Therefore, we must do everything we can to make the process of divorce the least painful for the EU, " said Tusk.
He highlighted that the main priority for the negotiations must be to create as much certainty and clarity as possible for all citizens, companies and member states that will be negatively affected by Brexit as well as for the EU's important partners and friends around the world.
The special European Council (Article 50), in an EU-27 format, will adopt the guidelines for the Brexit negotiations. The guidelines will define the framework for negotiations and set out the overall EU positions and principles during negotiations. The draft guidelines proposed by Tusk were presented to the member states on 31 March.
In a letter to leaders of the EU-27, Tusk said agreement on "people, money and Ireland" must come before negotiations on the EU's future relationship with the UK.
The UK government has said it does not want to delay talks on future trade relations.
Tusk's letter - calling for a "phased" approach to Brexit - echoed German Chancellor Angela Merkel's priorities, which she set out on Thursday (27 April).
"Before discussing our future, we must first sort out our past," he said, listing three priorities:
- On EU citizens living in the UK, he called for "effective, enforceable, non-discriminatory and comprehensive" guarantees
- The UK must fulfil all its financial obligations agreed as an EU member state
- A deal must be reached "to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland"
"We will not discuss our future relations with the UK until we have achieved sufficient progress on the main issues relating to the UK's withdrawal from the EU," he said.
Meanwhile, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said the UK would not have advantages over the 27 EU members once Brexit negotiations were concluded.
"There is no free lunch. Britons must know that," he told Germany's Funke Media Group.
EU officials estimate that the UK faces a bill of €60 billion (£51bn; $65bn) because of EU budget rules. UK politicians have said the government will not pay a sum of that size.
Reports say Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny will also ask his EU partners to back the idea of Northern Ireland automatically joining the EU if the province's people vote to unite with the Republic.
A senior EU diplomat said that the EU-27 wanted "a rapid decision", stating that as far as the guidelines were concerned, there was "no hint of a punitive line" being taken towards the UK, and that as far as Ireland was concerned, every effort was being made to continue "support for peace and reconciliation" and that a "hard border should be avoided at all costs".
On the Irish situation, he added: "We fully support the need to focus on the border in Ireland and to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is upheld in all its parts. One possible way to achieve this, and to respect the will of the majority of people in the north of Ireland would be to give the North of Ireland special status within the EU. Another way would be through Irish unity. In this regard we also welcome the proposal by the Irish prime minister for a declaration from the Council ensuring that a united Ireland would automatically be a member of the EU.
“We expect Ireland to ask on Saturday for a statement to be added to the minutes of the European Council, which states that in case of a unification of the island in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, the united Ireland would be a member of the EU.
“However, the EU does of course not take a stance on the possibility of a united Ireland. Should this question arise, it would be for the peoples of Ireland and Northern Ireland to decide in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement.”
Commenting on the guidelines for Brexit negotiations to be adopted by the Council, GUE/NGL President Gabi Zimmer MEP said: "We welcome the willingness of the Council to engage with the European Parliament with regards to the priorities to be laid out for the EU negotiator, Michel Barnier. However, we are missing a clear commitment to fully involve the European Parliament in the negotiation process, especially when decisions to open new chapters are to be made. We think it is in the best interests of citizens across Europe, including in the UK, that there is transparency in the whole negotiation process.
"We fully support the intention to put EU citizens’ right first. We need to swiftly and unconditionally provide legal certainty to nationals of EU member states living in the UK and British people living in other member states. For GUE/NGL, it is of utmost importance that the final agreement does not lead to the lowering of standards including environmental, social, workers’ rights, food safety and consumer standards."
The European Council spokesperson, again speaking on condition of anonymity, was similarly forthright: "Brexit is a lose-lose process, without winners. This is about damage control.
"We must address the immediate consequences of Brexit. The lives of millions of people are set to be negatively affected by Brexit - therefore, our process must be as effective and non-discriminatory as possible. We are striving to avoid a hard border in Ireland, and a 'no-deal' scenario. During discussions, we fully expect the broad support of all EU institutions and the EU-27 - we must act as one throughout the negotiations."
EU Reporter will provide updates in the wake of the special European Council meeting on 29 April, which begins at 12h30 central European time.
- 29 April - EU leaders (excluding the UK) meet in Brussels to adopt Brexit negotiating guidelines
- 8 June - UK parliamentary election - Brexit talks to start soon after the vote
- 24 September - German parliamentary election, with Merkel seeking a fourth term
- 29 March 2019 - Deadline for ending talks on UK exit terms (any extension requires agreement of all member states)
- May or June 2019 - European Parliament election (without UK)
- Ratification - Any Brexit deal requires ratification by all EU's national parliaments and European Parliament