European leaders will discuss Brexit at extraordinary summit, Maltese premier says

31 January 2017 9:55am

18 January 2017. By Simon Taylor. 

Leaders of all EU member states except the UK will hold an extraordinary summit on Brexit a month after British Prime Theresa May kicks off the official process to leave the bloc, Malta’s prime minister said today.

Speaking to EU lawmakers in Strasbourg today, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the 27 leaders would convene an extraordinary European Council meeting within four to five weeks after May triggers the start of negotiations. Malta is running the agenda of EU ministerial meetings until the end of June.

May is expected to start of the process at the end of March, by sending a letter notifying the other 27 EU leaders that the UK wants to leave the bloc. This would mean that the 27 would hold their summit around the end of April.

European leaders have already agreed to meet in Valletta on Feb. 3 and in Rome on March 25. The two summits are expected tofocus on Brexit as well as issues such as migration and maintaining the EU’s unity in the face of Brexit.

The extraordinary summit will be the first to discuss the UK’s position after May sends the letter.

Muscat said it was a “positive development” that May had said in her keynote speech on Brexit yesterday that she was prioritizing controls on free movement of people over membership of the single market and the customs union.

He welcomed the fact that May had recognized that free movement was one of the EU’s core principles and that the UK would not be able to remain in the single market while blocking immigration from European countries.

Fair deal 

Speaking at a plenary session of the European Parliament, Muscat repeated earlier comments that he was seeking a “fair deal” for the UK in the Brexit negotiations. But he stressed that the final deal would have to be inferior to EU membership.

“This should not come as surprise to anyone,” he said. “Thinking otherwise would be a detachment from reality.”

The Maltese leader said there was “unequivocal unity” among the 27 EU leaders on this position. This isn’t out of “antagonism” toward the UK, but based on a belief in the bloc’s “core values” including the indivisibility of the four freedoms.

Regarding the parliament’s role in the Brexit negotiations, Muscat, a former member of the assembly, said the legislature should be “involved as much as possible in this process.”

Lawmakers want their representative, Guy Verhofstadt, who leads the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, to participate in the Brexit talks. But the EU’s national leaders will only allow Verhofstadt to be involved in meetings to prepare negotiating sessions.

Muscat warned that by not involving the parliament in the negotiations, national leaders risked that even the “fairest of deals” could be scuttled by the assembly voting against the outcome. While having no official role in discussions, lawmakers must approve the final agreement with the UK.

Commenting on May’s statement that she would seek to negotiate a trade accord with the EU, Muscat said it would be an “arduous task,” as recent experience on such agreements had shown. “This should never be underestimated in these talks,” he said.

Speaking after Muscat in the chamber, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he welcomed May’s speech, but stressed that negotiations could only start after the UK notifies its intention to leave the EU.

“I will do everything to make sure negotiations will be according to the [EU’s] rules and will yield good results,” he said.

Speaking later in Strasbourg, Juncker said that after speaking with May yesterday, he was “satisfied” that she had taken away “some unclear elements from this unclear landscape.”

The commission was not in a “hostile mood,” he said, but was interested in a “fair deal.” This means a deal that is fair for both the UK and the EU’s member states, Juncker added.

Asked whether the bloc could accept B’s request to negotiate a trade agrement, he said it would be “very, very difficult” because Britain would have to be treated as a third country.

Brexit Special Report