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The UK and EU: Divorce by letters

The moment that some wished for and others dreaded arrived last Wednesday when British Prime Minister Theresa May sent EU Council President Donald Tusk a letter triggering the beginning of the end of her country’s EU membership. There was something surreal about the occasion and the handover of the letter by British Ambassador Tim Barrow to Tusk, but the surrealness of the event made it real.

It is no longer a hypothetical exercise, but a momentous challenge to undo more than 40 years of membership without ending in a “War of the Roses” style divorce (the movie of course). In his speech in response to the letter, Tusk did not hide his regret, mixed with sadness and controlled anger, that both sides had reached this point.

Other European leaders were more outspoken in their disappointment with Britain for what they see as an extreme act of irrational selfishness that might end up harming both sides. This is a regrettable and unnecessary turn in UK-EU relations. But the quicker both sides realize that the decision — driven more by emotions than by a detailed and calculated cost-benefit analysis — requires a rational, complex salvage operation to minimize the damage, the better.

For Europe, there is a huge dilemma ahead. Making the UK pay for its decision is tempting, but will not necessarily serve Europe’s interests. But rewarding a country that decided to leave this painstakingly crafted union by agreeing to all its requests might be seen by other members as morally wrong and create a temptation to follow suit.

A soft approach to Brexit could incentivize voters in other countries to support parties that wish to break away from this complex political arrangement. But taking a punitive route might compromise the political, economic and security interests of the remaining 27 members. It is for the negotiators to resolve this difficult conundrum over the next two years.

May, sensing a strong mood in Europe to make Britain pay for its self-indulgent Brexit act, included a blunt threat in her letter that failing to reach a deal satisfactory to the UK will end in a weakening of cooperation on crime and terrorism. May took a high-risk negotiating strategy by resorting to blackmail, which is not necessarily wise.

As the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt admitted, the UK’s strength in the military and intelligence fields are of great importance. Whether they can serve as bargaining chips for the UK to extract favorable terms is a different matter altogether.

For European leaders, it is as important to end this lengthy process of up to two years not only with a successful deal, but also without damaging the union of the other 27 members and the attraction for those who are in the process of accession.

Yossi Mekelberg

The notion that the May government can play with the security of Europe in the negotiations is ludicrous and self-defeating. A Europe ravaged by crime and terrorism is as dangerous to Britons as it is to those living across the tiny water strip that separates the two.

Furthermore, Tusk set very clear priorities for the EU in the Brexit negotiations: First the divorce terms should be determined, then Europe will be ready for open talks on future trade terms. For the EU, the litmus test of future ties relies on the flexibility the UK government shows in the withdrawal talks.

Brexit poses a threat to the peace and prosperity brought about by European integration. Tusk rightly warned that millions of citizens who have built their lives “on the basis of rights flowing from British membership of the EU” are under threat of being uprooted. As part of this process, the UK is expected to fork over a “divorce bill” of up to £50 billion ($62.4 billion) prior to any talks on future relations.

For European leaders, it is as important to end this lengthy process of up to two years not only with a successful deal, but also without damaging the union of the other 27 members and the attraction for those who are in the process of accession. May and her colleagues believe, or at least pretend, that they have strong negotiating cards, but there are also many weaknesses.

One of them is that any deal requires the consent of all EU members, which may lead to specific bilateral demands under the Brexit negotiations umbrella. Spain’s demand to open the issue of Gibraltar as part of Brexit negotiations exposes the vulnerability of Britain to the demands of the entire union as much to those of individual members. The irony, maybe the tragedy, of May triggering Article 50 is that her government is looking to achieve out of the negotiations exactly what it already has as a member state, minus the free movement of people.

In their loathing of migration, Brexiteers risk the maintenance of Britain’s free trade, liberal democratic values and security. They may find a Europe that is unwilling and perhaps even incapable of compromise on this principle, which is as important as the other freedoms it has enshrined.

• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.