Politics Takes Back Seat in Brexit Talks, Juncker Warns U.K.

(Bloomberg) -- European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the Brexit process is in the hands of “divorce lawyers,” signaling to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May that she will have limited political scope to influence the negotiations.

Juncker, who leads the European Union’s executive arm, said Britain’s 27 EU partners will stay united during the two-year Brexit talks to be steered by the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. The negotiations are slated to begin after a U.K. general election on June 8.

Politics Takes Back Seat in Brexit Talks, Juncker Warns U.K.

Juncker at European Parliament, May 17.

Photographer: Patrick Hertzog/AFP via Getty Images

“This negotiation is now in the hands of our capable divorce lawyers,” Juncker told the European Parliament on Wednesday in Strasbourg, France. “The process shows how united and prepared the European Union will be.”

The EU is stepping up warnings to the U.K. against overestimating its political leverage over Brexit, saying any accord on departing the bloc in 2019 must settle a slew of financial and legal complexities. These include a withdrawal bill for Britain, the rights of EU citizens living in the U.K. and the future border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Advances on these three “priorities” must occur before any parallel talks can begin on Britain’s post-Brexit economic relationship with the bloc, EU President Donald Tusk stressed.

Future Relations

“There will be no discussion of the framework for our future relations with Britain before sufficient progress is made on ensuring an orderly withdrawal,” Tusk, who chairs meetings of the EU’s national leaders, told the Parliament on Wednesday in the debate with Juncker.

U.K. Brexit Secretary David Davis has rejected the EU’s timetable for the talks, warning of a “row” over that. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has signaled that Brussels could end up owing money to Britain, which is a net contributor to the EU budget, when the country leaves rather than the other way around.

Barnier said the technical challenges of reaching an agreement on the U.K.’s departure from the EU after more than four decades of membership are formidable.

“We are going to have to unravel 44 years of integration, economic relations, financial, technical, legal, human, social relations,” Barnier said in the EU Parliament debate. “No one should underestimate any of the consequences here or the legal complexity of this separation.”

Planned Sequencing

The goal is to start the Brexit negotiations the “day after” next month’s U.K. election and the point of the planned sequencing of the talks is to facilitate a smooth exit rather than to “hand out punishment to the U.K.,” he said.

“We want to conclude a deal with the U.K., not against the U.K.,” Barnier said. “I certainly don’t intend to have no agreement, no deal or a bad deal.”

Tusk repeated that Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU will be inferior to membership, saying any trade deal will exclude participation in the European single market. The U.K.’s 27 EU partners are due to approve their Brexit negotiation mandate next week.