LONDON (AFP) – Britain begins historic talks on leaving the European Union (EU) today while still mourning the victims of a devastating fire and reeling from an election that has badly weakened the government.
Brexit minister David Davis will travel to Brussels to meet Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to kick off hugely complex withdrawal negotiations that are expected to last less than two years.
Worried by immigration and loss of sovereignty, Britain last year voted to end its decades-old membership of the 28-country bloc – the first country ever to do so – in a shock referendum result.
The government has developed a strategy of “hard Brexit” to cut the numbers of immigrants arriving from the EU at the expense of Britain’s membership of the European single market and customs union.
But that entire approach has come under question following a general election earlier this month in which Prime Minister Theresa May lost her Conservative party’s parliamentary majority.
Ordinary Britons are also beginning to feel the cost of Brexit because of higher import prices caused by a plunge in the pound and businesses are increasingly worried about losing trade access.
May has clung on to power since the election but has so far failed to strike an agreement with Northern Ireland’s ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party that would allow her to govern.
The Conservatives now only have 317 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons and need the support of the DUP’s 10 MPs for a razor-thin majority.
The government is due to present its programme at the opening of parliament on Wednesday, which will be followed by a key confidence vote days later.
Adding to what Queen Elizabeth II called the “sombre national mood” have been three terrorist attacks in three months and a fire in a London tower block in which 58 people are presumed dead.
The government’s current weakness has helped fuel criticism of its approach to Brexit, although pro-EU campaigners’ hopes that it could rethink the decision to leave the EU have come to nothing.
Finance minister Philip Hammond has led calls for a softer strategy on Brexit, prioritising the economy.
“We should be protecting jobs, protecting economic growth and protecting prosperity,” he said in Luxembourg last week.
Other members of May’s Conservatives have called for a more inclusive approach on Brexit strategy that would include the voices of opposition parties as well as the views of Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both voted to stay in the EU.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who is newly influential after winning 13 seats in Scotland, has said Britain should prioritise “freedom to trade and our economic growth”.