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EU leaders switch focus to Europe's future with Brexit delay

Reuters Photo

"Brexit is not the future of the European Union" and cannot pose as an obstacle before EU's progress, the head of European Commission said on Thursday. "Brexit cannot hinder our progress and it will not. The trade agreements and relations with international partners will determine the future of our union," Jean-Claude Juncker told the General Assembly of European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said Tuesday the European Union can focus unhindered on building its own future now that Britain has a longer delay to work out its troubled exit.

Speaking to the European Parliament, Juncker also insisted Britain cooperate with the EU during the delay, which he did not expect to be renewed after October 31, and be treated as a full member.

"The future of our union is not Brexit," Juncker, the head of the 28-nation EU's executive arm, told the parliament in its last session before the May 23-26 elections.

"Brexit cannot and will not hinder our progress," Juncker said, adding the delay agreed at a summit last week will mean Europe will not be forced to discuss Brexit every week.

He referred to key decisions ahead on a new multi-year EU budget, international trade, and the selection of new European leaders, including his replacement.

Echoing terms of the delay the EU granted Britain at a summit last week, Juncker also underlined anew Britain's role in the months or weeks ahead.

"We are requesting there will be a loyal and responsible cooperation," the former Luxembourg premier said, switching to English from a speech in French and German.

But Juncker also said Britain must be treated as a full member as long as it stays in the block. "We don't have member states of second rank."

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, underlined Juncker's points on Britain's role ahead and said the delay allowed Europe to focus on other priorities like trade with the United States.

European leaders agreed with Britain last Thursday to delay Brexit by up to October 31, saving the continent from what could have been a chaotic no-deal departure on April 12.

The April 12 deadline was a delay from an original deadline of March 29.

The EU granted the delays after Prime Minister Theresa May failed three times to get her parliament to adopt the divorce deal she struck in Brussels in November.

The deal also means that, if London remains in the EU after May 22, British voters will have to take part in European elections -- or crash out on June 1.

Juncker underlined the options facing Britain.

"The United Kingdom can also revoke its request to leave, but it is not my working hypothesis," Juncker said. "Nor is it my working hypothesis that there will be an other extension beyond October 31."

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