October 22, 2016

UK should ‘get act together’ to decide on Brexit terms, says top EU figure

European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said Brexit was an ‘existential issue’ for the EU. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

Britain’s political leaders should “get their act together” and tell the European Union what they want from their divorce, Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s vice-president has said.

Timmermans, the Dutch right-hand man to the commission’s chief, Jean-Claude Juncker, said Brexit was an “existential issue” for the rest of the EU but the bloc had “enormous possibilities” to thrive.

“I follow closely what is happening in the UK and the political discussions in the UK, and perhaps they should first get their act together and tell us what they really want out of this,” Timmermans said.

“It’s not the 27 other member states who asked the United Kingdom to leave. On the contrary, they pleaded with the UK to stay,” he added in an interview with AFP to mark Thursday’s publication in French of Fraternité, a book on Europe.

“The onus is on the country that decides to leave to tell us how they want to leave and I think that’s the starting point of the discussion,” said Timmermans, who was a key figure in negotiations with Britain before the referendum.

The British prime minister, Theresa May, held a special Brexit “brainstorm” cabinet meeting on Tuesday amid reports on major divisions on how to proceed, while May has said she would not trigger the two-year divorce process until next year.

Meanwhile the other 27 EU leaders will meet in Slovakia on 16 September to plan a way forward.

But Timmermans said the EU should not necessarily take a tough stance with Britain, as some leaders have suggested.

“The United Kingdom is not going anywhere, it’s going to be geographically where it is now, the Channel is not going to get any broader,” said Timmermans. “So in that sense the UK will remain a European country even if it’s not a member of the European Union and that should be the basis, I believe, for the negotiations.”

Timmermans however warns in his book of a possible failure of the European project.

“The argument that won the Brexit campaign is the one that said take back control … which is another way of saying we want to control our destinies again,” he said. “This is an existential issue for the whole of Europe not just for the UK.”

He also criticised the “hyperbole” during the Brexit campaign – the now-foreign minister Boris Johnson compared the EU to Hitler – and expressed concern about a rise in hate crime in Britain after the vote.

“It hurts me when people like me who defend Europe are accused of wanting to complete the project of Adolf Hitler,” he said.

“I am sure Boris Johnson or Michael Gove or others didn’t intend to create this dynamic in British society, but it was created during the campaign.”

Timmermans insisted there was cause for optimism in Europe. “I still see enormous possibilities for Europe,” he said, citing EU initiatives in the digital economy and energy single market.

On Europe’s migration crisis, Timmermans cast doubt on Turkey’s demands for visa-free travel by October in exchange for curbing the refugee flow to Greece under a deal with the EU.

“Turkey has to comply with the benchmarks and a deal is a deal. We’ve said if you comply with the benchmarks the commission will make a proposal to the parliament and the council. But we’re not there yet.”

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