Juncker's 'monster' moves to top EU job

LONDON: Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (left) greets Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte outside No 10 Downing street, in central London yesterday. — AFP

LONDON: More than 60 Conservative lawmakers have written to Prime Minister Theresa May demanding a quick, clean break from the EU, adding pressure on her to take a "hard Brexit" stance ahead of a meeting to decide Britain's negotiating position. May, whose government and party is divided over Brexit, has just eight months to strike a withdrawal deal with the European Union, but insists Britain will leave at 2300 GMT on March 29, 2019. The group of 62 lawmakers in her party demanded a tougher approach in a number of areas, including Britain's right to move away from EU rules after leaving, and the terms of any transition period.

"Your government must have the ability to change British laws and rules once we leave, rather than being a 'rule-taker'," the letter, whose signatories include former party leader Iain Duncan Smith and ex-development secretary Priti Patel, said. The EU has repeatedly asked May to clarify how she sees Britain's future relationship with the bloc but the weakened prime minister, who lost her parliamentary majority in an ill-judged snap election, has been wary of setting out too many details as her party is so divided on the issue.

May will host senior ministers at her country residence Chequers on Thursday to try to broker an agreement between the factions. She is then expected to set out her plans in a speech in the next few weeks, before formal trade talks begin in March. In the letter, the lawmakers say they will only support a transition period - favored by proponents of a "softer" Brexit, during which Britain would stay within many existing EU structures - if all the details are fully negotiated by March next year.

Britain must be able to change its laws without authorization from Brussels from the moment it formally leaves the EU, they say. On Tuesday, Britain's chief Brexit negotiator, David Davis, said he aimed for a system of "mutual recognition" where both sides agree common regulatory outcomes, such as consumer protection or financial stability, but are able to pursue their own policies to reach those goals. EU leaders have warned Britain cannot have both freedom from the bloc's regulations and frictionless trade.

Juncker's 'monster'

Meanwhile, the powerful chief of staff to Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Selmayr, will take a top post in the European Commission in a move which means he can stay on after his boss steps down next year, sources said yesterday. The German-affectionately nicknamed the "Monster" by Juncker himself and less affectionately dubbed the "Rasputin of Brussels" by the British press-will become secretary general of the commission, the EU's executive arm, a European source told AFP.

Selmayr, 47, a lawyer by trade, is already well known as gatekeeper and enforcer to Juncker but has also been involved in controversies including over leaks about Brexit negotiations. Juncker's term of office is due to end in 2019 but the new post means Selmayr will be able to stay on in the commission after that. Spaniard Clara Martinez will become Juncker's new chief of staff, the source said. Selmayr will replace Alexander Italianer, a Dutch civil servant, who has been secretary general of the commission since 2015. It is the top civil servant post in the commission.

Despite a reputation as a shadowy power-broker, Selmayr has often been outspoken on social media in defense of his Luxembourgish boss. He was the first to break news of a deal between British Prime Minister Theresa May and Juncker in the first phase of Brexit talks in December, when he tweeted a picture of white smoke-a reference to choosing a new pope. In October he publicly denied leaking details to a German newspaper that reported May had pleaded with Juncker for help in unblocking stalled negotiations,. "I deny that 1/we leaked this; 2/Juncker ever said this; 3/we are punitive on Brexit," wrote Selmayr. "It's an attempt to frame EU side and to undermine."- Agencies