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Jean-Claude Juncker says Brexit talks will be 'very, very, very difficult'

The president of the European commission has said Brexit talks will be "very, very, very difficult" as he called for a fair deal for both sides.

Speaking to journalists in Strasbourg on Wednesday, Jean-Claude Juncker played down suggestions that Theresa May's speech was a threat to Europe, and emphasised that a deal had to reflect the interests of Britain and the EU.

The former prime minister of Luxembourg said he had spoken to the British prime minister on Tuesday evening and told her that the commission was not in a hostile mood. "We want a fair deal with Britain, and a fair deal for Britain, but a fair deal means a fair deal for the European Union," he said.

But he added it would be "a very, very, very difficult negotiation" because Britain would be considered as a foreign country to the rest of the EU.

Sitting alongside him, Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta - which currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency - said he had not seen May's words as "a declaration of war".

Earlier on Wednesday, the Maltese leader had welcomed May's decision to leave the single market as a "somewhat positive" sign that the British government understands it cannot cherrypick the best bits of the EU.

Muscat told MEPs in Strasbourg that negotiating Brexit would be an "arduous task" and, referring to the UK, said no one should underestimate "our colleagues on the other side of the table".

Malta, the EU's smallest member, took over the EU presidency on 1 January. Muscat noted the "historic irony" that his country - under British rule until 1964 - would preside over EU business when the UK triggered article 50, the formal procedure for leaving the bloc.

Muscat, who once worked as an intern for Tony Blair, reiterated his determination that any Brexit deal had to be inferior to EU membership. That "should not come as a surprise", he said. "Thinking it can be otherwise would indicate a detachment from reality." Brexit was not a "happy event" for Malta, he said, noting Britain's "great and mostly positive influence" on the island nation.

In the same parliamentary session, Juncker pledged to do everything to make sure "the negotiations will be according to the rules and yield good results". He said: "To those who think the moment has come to deconstruct Europe and take it to pieces, they are completely wrong."

The EU leaders devoted little time to Brexit in set-piece speeches intended to discuss the EU's big challenges over the next six months. Europe's migration crisis, which called into question the continent's open borders, was the dominant issue, followed by security and counter-terrorism.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament's outspoken Brexit representative, found a moment to attack Ukip MEPs, as he questioned why the British Eurosceptics continued to attend European parliament sessions.

"Why are you still here?" he said. "I am asking myself. Go to the United States. Go to the inauguration of Mr Trump instead of being here."

He was picking up on the US president-elect's comments that Britain had been "smart" to vote for Brexit. Verhofstadt said: "An American president openly saying other countries break away from the European Union. I have never seen it, never heard it."

In November, Nigel Farage, who remains co-leader of the Ukip-dominated bloc in the European parliament, was snapped grinning with Trump in front of the billionaire's golden elevator.

Verhofstadt, a well-known federalist, said Trump's election should be a wake-up call for Europe: "Let's face it, the turning point is already there, an American president, Trump, who is openly, in fact, against the European Union and saying that other countries will turn away. What turning point do we need?"

[Source: By Jennifer Rankin in Brussels, The Guardian, London, 18Jan17]

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small logoThis document has been published on 19Jan17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.