Brexit summit Q&A: What was agreed and what happens next?

Nobody wants to see British leave, even though they were EU’s awkward squad since forever

Taoiseach Enda Kenny: summit results do represent a significant achievement by the Government. Photograph: AFP

Taoiseach Enda Kenny: summit results do represent a significant achievement by the Government. Photograph: AFP

 

What was the summit about?

European leaders gathered in Brussels to agree the negotiating principles for the European Commission team that will shortly begin discussions with the British Government representatives to agree the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union.

The meeting was brief and entirely unanimous. Within the first minute they agreed to adopt the final draft of the guidelines that had been circulated during the week. Then they gave themselves a round of applause.

Why were they so happy?

Actually, they’re not. Nobody wants to see the British leave. Even though they were the EU’s awkward squad since forever, and things seemed to so off rather more cordially in their absence, officials and politicians from all member states expressed sadness that the British weren’t there.

Nobody in Brussels relishes the task they are setting out on. But they do accept it, and the summit yesterday exhibited high degree of unanimity.

So what is the EU’s position?

The President of the European Council (that’s the group of heads of government) Donald Tusk described the EU’s priorities as “people, money and Ireland”.

By that he means that the first phase of the negotiations must deal with the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK (and of UK citizens resident EU countries), the size of the British bill to be paid on leaving and the effects on Ireland, especially with regard to the border. Only once progress has been made on these issues will the EU agree to the future relationship with the UK, and the question of a trade deal.

So Ireland is one of the EU’s priorities?

Yep. This has been clearly set out in all the documents and is constantly referenced by EU leaders. It’s quite a coup for the Government, which has undertaken an intensive campaign since the middle of last year to explain to other EU countries just how exposed Ireland is to Brexit. The Irish side has highlighted the threats to the peace settlement in the North posed by the reimposition of a hard border on the island.

And it’s worked?

So far. The Irish government has even got EU leaders to agree to a declaration that should Northern Ireland vote in a referendum to join a united Ireland (as provided for by the Belfast Agreement) that it would automatically become part of the EU. Enda Kenny stressed yesterday that there is no imminent prospect of anything like that happened, but it’s an important statement of Ireland’s position in the negotiations all the same.

Kenny must be delighted with himself?

He’s thrilled. In fairness, the summit results do represent a significant achievement by the Government. Nothing is agreed yet of course, and while both the British and the EU constantly say nice things about Ireland’s concerns, it remains to be seen how much of a priority Ireland will be once the negotiations begin. But for now, things are going as well as they could reasonably be hoped for.

So what now?

The EU27 – that’s the remaining EU countries, excluding the UK – has agreed its negotiating principles. They – we – will be represented in the negotiations by the a team from the European Commission, the EU’s civil service, led by Michel Barnier.

Britain’s remains a member of the EU for another two years, but the triggering of article 50 puts them outside the tent. Ireland will be part of the 27, negotiating with the British.

Over the coming weeks, Commission officials will produce a series of more detailed documents, which will set out the approach that the EU side will take on a number of specific areas. They will be approved by EU foreign ministers on May 22. The British are also making their preparations, though the general election in the UK in early means that Downing St’s attentions are elsewhere. Nonetheless, if as expected Mrs May wins the election – probably with a much larger majority – the talks proper will begin in June.

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