BRUSSELS – The top Brexit official at the European Parliament thinks British political giants such as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher would not look kindly on Prime Minister Theresa May turning over the hourglass on her country's withdrawal from the European Union.
Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said Churchill, Britain's leader for most of World War II, would say in response to Wednesday's action, "'What is happening? I was always in favor of a European future for my country.' He would criticize it a lot."
Thatcher, too, despite her long-running feuds with the EU during the 1980s to pay less and get more in return, was at heart a pro-European, he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Verhofstadt, who will be closely involved in the exit negotiations as the main representative of the European Parliament, insisted that May's six-page letter triggering the talks carried an underlying message of regret.
"You ask yourself, after you have read the letter 'Why is Britain going outside the European Union?' Because in every chapter, in every chapter of the letter she defends the European Union and: 'Oh, it was so good, but OK, we have to go out.'"
The European Parliament itself put out strong negotiating lines Wednesday, which are closely aligned to the tack chief negotiator EU Michel Barnier is expected to take.
Although Verhofstadt technically will be subordinate to Barnier during the talks expected to start around the end of May, he represents the veto power of the legislature.
"If the outcome of the negotiations is not in conformity with the points and conditions we have made public today, yeah, then we will use our veto power, it is clear," he said.
EU officials and leaders of many member nations have made it clear that the first priority will be finding agreement on the future rights of the 3 million EU citizens living in Britain and the 1 million Britons living elsewhere in the bloc.
Verhofstadt hopes to have that issue settled by the end of the year to provide clarity for those 4 million people. A residency agreement could be sealed off as a done deal before it would need to be rubber-stamped as part of the overall withdrawal package, he said.
He said does not envision a final deal covering the nitty gritty of trade and other aspects of Britain's future relationship with the bloc, materializing within the two-year time frame outlined in the EU exit process. Will all kinds of national and parliamentary approvals needed, he thinks it would be impossible.
Instead, Verhofstadt thinks it's likely there will be an extended transition period of "I don't know, two, three, four years — we say no more than three years — to discuss, to detail the content of this future relationship."
Since British voters approved the referendum to leave the EU in June, Verhofstadt senses the pendulum swinging back on the continent to appreciation for the union's merits.
"Brexit has created a sort of a sentiment in public opinion saying 'Yeah, we are so very critical toward the European Union, but we are not so stupid as the Brits to go out or to destroy it,'" he said.