Barnier says Brexit transition talks likely to exceed 2020 deadline
Michel Barnier has fuelled fears of a no-deal Brexit at the end of 2020 after suggesting the future negotiations on a trade deal might require more than three years of talks.
Speaking to the European parliament, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator appeared to concede the 14-month transition period would not allow time to reach agreement on a new trade and security arrangement. He said such talks could take “three years or more”.
The current transition period, during which the UK will stay in the single market and customs union but not be part of the EU’s decision-making bodies, finishes at the end of December 2020.
The withdrawal agreement allows for the transition period to be extended by “one to two years” but Boris Johnson has said he will not trigger such a prolongation.
There is growing concern among MPs that voting through the withdrawal agreement without amendment will only create a new cliff edge in which Brexiter MPs could manoeuvre to get the UK out of the EU’s structures without a deal.
Responding to the leader of the Brexit party, Nigel Farage, Barnier told MEPs during a debate in the European parliament that the “rebuilding” arrangements with the UK would take years to complete.
He said: “What we are doing at the moment is unpicking 44 years of cooperation … I was surprised by Mr Farage … saying that this agreement opens doors to three further years of negotiation. Well of course.
“We are gong to have to negotiate beyond Brexit, and the divorce settlement, maybe two three or more years for some areas to rebuild everything that has had to be unpicked as a result of those who wish Brexit and we have to get a balanced agreement following all the rules to avoid tax, social and environmental dumping. And we have to make sure that we have universities, Erasmus, police, judicial, security, defence cooperation. Foreign policy as well.”
Barnier was speaking in Strasbourg after Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, had in effect confirmed the EU will grant a Brexit delay beyond 31 October, with the terms of the extension of UK membership depending on developments in Westminster.
As MPs prepare for their first vote on the revised Brexit deal, Tusk told the European parliament that the EU’s final response to Boris Johnson’s letter seeking an extension would be given in the coming days.
Tusk told MEPs in Strasbourg: “The situation is quite complex following events over the weekend in the UK and the British request for an extension of the article 50 process.
“I’m consulting the leaders on how to react and will decide in the coming days. It’s obvious that the result of these consultations will very much depend on what the British parliament decides or doesn’t decide.
“We should be ready for every scenario but one thing must be clear, as I said to Prime Minister Johnson on Saturday, a no-deal Brexit will never be our decision.”
After a series of MEPs backed a further delay during a debate in the European parliament, Tusk added: “Thank for your responsible position on Brexit and the extension. Through this you show common sense and a sense of dignity.
“After what I have heard today in this chamber I have no doubt that we should treat the British request for an extension in all seriousness.”
An extra hurdle to the UK leaving by 31 October appeared to be put in the way by Guy Verhofstadt, the coordinator of the European parliament’s Brexit steering group.
He told MEPs that the chamber should withhold its approval for the deal until further assurances were received over the government’s treatment of EU citizens, including 200,000 people who are regarded as being vulnerable.
“We do not want EU citizens involved in another Windrush scandal in Britain,” the former prime minister of Belgium said. “That cannot happen.”
Johnson was forced to send a letter on Saturday asking to extend the UK’s membership beyond 31 October after the Commons said it would withhold approval of the deal until all the related legislation was passed.
That move triggered the Benn act, under which the prime minister had to seek an extension to 31 January unless a deal had been approved by the Commons over the weekend.
In comments that will antagonise the Democratic Unionist party, which is opposing the revised deal, Tusk said the agreement struck had been possible due to Johnson’s acceptance of a border being drawn in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
“[The deal] is based on the deal that we agreed with the previous government,” Tusk said. “The changes concern the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland formerly known as the backstop.”
Tusk added: “Prime Minister Johnson’s acceptance to have customs checks at the points of entry into Northern Ireland will allow us to avoid border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland and will ensure the integrity of the single market”.
The president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said the EU had done it all could to find a compromise, a process he described as “a waste of time and waste of energy”.
He said: “It took a huge amount of work to arrive at this point. I listened to Prime Minister Johnson in the same way as I listened to Prime Minister May.”
The European parliament will not vote on the Brexit deal this Thursday, as had been planned.
An extraordinary session of the chamber could be called as late as 31 October if Westminster passes the withdrawal agreement through all the legislative stages in both the Commons and the House of Lords. The next sitting of the chamber would otherwise be on 14 November.
Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s party, the largest group in the EU parliament, said MEPs should not be in a rush to give their support for the deal. “There is no need to hurry up,” Weber said.