An EU flag is seen outside the the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain on March 29, 2017. Britain on Wednesday officially started the historic process to leave the European Union (EU) as the letter signed by Prime Minister Theresa May was sent to leaders of the 28-member bloc. (Xinhua/Tim Ireland)
by Martin Banks
BRUSSELS, March 29 (Xinhua) -- British Prime Mnister Theresa May's historic Article 50 letter was handed to European Council President Donald Tusk here on Wednesday, triggering the two-year countdown to Britain's exit of the bloc after 44 years of membership.
Now the question is: will the EU give Britain an easy ride in upcoming Brexit talks?
Britain's withdrawal leaves a substantial hole in the EU, which now loses the world's fifth-largest economy, a nuclear power, and a member of the UN Security Council.
However, a European Council statement gives a useful insight into how tortuous and possibly acrimonious the upcoming Brexit negotiations could be.
The statement, which is expected to form the basis of the EU's guidelines for its chief negotiator Michel Barnier, states that EU member states "regret" that the UK is leaving the Union, but "are ready for the process."
The guidelines "will set out the overall positions and principles in light of which the Union, represented by the European Commission, will negotiate with the United Kingdom," the statement underlined.
The guidelines for Barnier will limit the scope of the upcoming talks to the divorce terms and won't include the future trade relationship with the UK, according to sources.
Barnier, a former EU commissioner, warned last week of "serious repercussions" for both Britain and the EU if the divorce talks fail without a deal being reached.
The French-born official said that more than four million EU citizens in the UK, and British expats in the bloc, would face uncertainty over their futures.
Barnier is not expected to actually start talks with London until mid to late May and any withdrawal agreement cannot enter into force without the consent of the European Parliament. In the coming weeks Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are expected to adopt a resolution setting out its own red lines.
Ashley Fox, leader of Conservative MEPs in the European Parliament, said: "I sense the overriding mood in Brussels is one of determination to strike a deal as quickly as possible that is fair to both sides and recognises we will continue to be close trading partners and allies after Brexit."
Fellow British Conservative MEP Amjad Bashir, a Brexit sympathizer, said: "Now we can concentrate on the important work, which is to secure the best deal possible for Britain as we leave the EU, as well as work on prospective trade deals with countries around the globe."
Former UK Liberal MEP Andrew Duff, a respected EU constitutional expert, suggested how Britain and EU institutions should go about the negotiations.
The joint objective, he said, is to ensure that Brexit happens in a "legal, orderly, and democratic way," and that the way is prepared for a new form of durable association.
Duff recommended the setting-up of a special joint transition authority to oversee over a longer period the full completion of the Brexit process and the preparation of the next phase of Britain's European partnership.
Duff, now with the Brussels-based European Policy Centre think tank, said, "Brexit will happen; negotiations will be challenging; but that does not mean both sides should make the parting more difficult than it already is."
Further comment comes from BusinessEurope, which comprises 40 member federations in 34 European countries. Its spokesman said: "The decision of the UK to leave the EU opens up factors of uncertainty. It is, therefore, essential to organize the exit of the UK from the EU in an orderly and constructive manner," the spokesman stressed.
The two sides now have to meet a two-year deadline to strike a deal. The trade agreement will be the critical centerpiece.
If no new deal is agreed before the two sides, trading terms will default to the World Trade Organization (WTO) standards, which are significantly less beneficial for both sides.
The key topics of Brexit talks are the exit bill Britain is required to pay to the EU for the price of leaving, rights for EU citizens to remain within the UK following Brexit and vice-versa, the future freedom of movement for people and goods, and the complicated political situation between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Should Britain successfully exit the EU within the designated two years from the triggering of Article 50, the process should be completed by April 2019.