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In Missoula, British consul general looks to build post-Brexit partnerships

After 40 years of marriage, separation isn’t easy.

British Consul General Andrew Whittaker on Tuesday detailed the United Kingdom’s push to leave the European Union, undoing its long political and economic relationship with other member countries.

But Whittaker, in Missoula with the Montana World Affairs Council for the day, said Brexit doesn’t mean the UK will vanish from the global stage. Rather, he said, it’s simply searching for a reset button.

“As of today, we’re still part of the EU and those negotiations are still ongoing,” said Whittaker. “We’re talking about a process that’s going to take several years. But the government has set out a number of very clear red lines, and one is how we control our own border.”

Immigration aside, Whittaker said those lines also look to remove the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. And it’s also looking to control its own economic future.

“The UK has been a net contributor to the EU budget for many years, and now we’ll have control over our own money,” he said. “That’s not to say we won’t be putting anything into European projects, but it will be our decision to determine which projects we’re in.”

Whittaker stood for a morning interview at KGVO radio with Robert Seidenschwarz, president emeritus of the Montana World Affairs Council. He also attended a private luncheon and presentation on Brexit in a midday forum held in downtown Missoula.

In doing so, Whittaker sought to clarify a number of myths, saying the UK has and will continue to pride itself on being an open and welcoming nation. He also suggested that the UK’s vote to leave the EU wasn’t a surprise, as a number of polls indicated that “leave” would prevail.

Nor is the UK looking to slink away from the international stage.

“When we come out, one of the key things will be how we promote the UK globally,” Whittaker said. “It’s very important to us that the UK remains a significant global player. A free trade agreement with the U.S. will be very high on the list.”

Whittaker said those talks are ongoing and full withdrawal from the EU isn’t likely to happen until 2020. After 40 years of partnership, he said, “there’s a lot of untangling to be done.”

But so far, Whittaker said, the process has found success, though a number of issues linger. Among them, settling payments and handling European citizens in the UK, as well as UK citizens in Europe, are on the table.

“The final one is looking at how we make sure the relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland isn’t damaged in any way,” he said. “That’s been a really crucial part to both sides.”

The Belfast Agreement will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, and Whittaker said it’s important to ensure the relationship continues and that all sides respect the common travel area established between Ireland and the UK.

That agreement predates the EU and must be maintained after Brexit, he said.

“We need to ensure that we don’t return to a situation where there’s that hard border, which was a real symbol and was very difficult for people during the time of the troubles,” Whittaker said. “We’ve seen so much progress through that peace process, and both sides are very clear that we don’t see any reversals of that progress there.”