Brexit is opportunity to pull Europe closer together: EU official

NEW YORK: The European Union Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator on Monday said Britain's decision to make a clean break from the EU was an opportunity to reform Europe and avoid a further breakdown in ties between its remaining member states.

Former Belgian Prime Minister and member of the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt also said the election of US President Donald Trump, and what he views as Washington's move toward more protectionism, is a wake-up call for the EU.

"The Brexit discussion is a good opportunity not only to discuss and negotiate a new agreement, a new partnership with Britain, but also to fix that now it is time to have a real government in Europe," Verhofstadt said in an interview with Reuters in New York while promoting his new book: "Europe's Last Chance."

In June, Britons voted 52-48 percent to leave the EU, triggering a change of government leadership and the appointment of Theresa May as Prime Minister. On January 17 May said Britain will leave the EU's single market when it exits the European Union. She wants to start the process by the end of March.

However, Britain's Supreme Court will rule on January 24 on whether parliament must first agree to triggering Article 50, which formally starts Britain's two-year divorce process.

Verhofstadt said it was "far too early" to speculate on the impact for Britain, or the City of London, Europe's biggest financial center.

"It is clear the transition needs to be limited in time. I have seen temporary things become eternal," Verhofstadt said, adding: "What is far more important is a clear triggering of 50, a clear proposal by the British government and how they see the partnership in the future."

"We have to see if they ask for a free trade agreement. It could be something different," he said.

Verhofstadt is working to get Parliament a seat at the negotiating table rather than be consulted before and after each round of talks.

"We have to conclude before the European elections of 2019," he said, reiterating that Britain will not be able to choose policies allowing it to fare better by being outside of the EU instead of being a full member.

Rather than retreat and fracture, Europe should create a political and defense union, and unify its common market across more industries and service sectors, Verhofstadt said.

"It is a wake-up call," he said, driven by "Brexit, and amplified by the elections in the United States."