No time to waste in Brexit talks, Michel Barnier warns UK Britain at risk of crashing out without deal on EU ties, says Brussels negotiator
Brussels - YESTERDAY
Britain risks crashing out of the EU in March 2019 without a deal on future relations if it “wastes” more of the limited time available for Brexit talks, the union’s chief negotiator has warned.
With Westminster still grappling with the uncertainty of a hung parliament, Michel Barnier urged London to start talks “very quickly” and appoint a negotiating team that is “stable, accountable and with a mandate”.
“Next week, it will be three months after the sending of the Article 50 letter,” he said, referring to the notification of withdrawal talks lasting two years. “We haven’t negotiated, we haven’t progressed. Thus we must begin this negotiation. We are ready as soon as the UK itself is ready.”
Mr Barnier made the plea for urgency in an interview with the Financial Times and a group of European newspapers, his first since being appointed by the EU’s other 27 member states. It came on a day when Britain delayed the Queen’s Speech to allow for a government to be formed.
“My preoccupation is that time is passing, it is passing quicker than anyone believes because the subjects we have to deal with are extraordinarily complex,” he added. “I can’t negotiate with myself.”
A former French foreign minister and two-time European commissioner, Mr Barnier has the challenge of his career in marshalling the EU through one of the most complex negotiations of modern times, all against a March 2019 deadline.
That was further complicated last week when Britain’s Tory government lost its majority just days before Brexit talks start, potentially shattering its plans and ability to deliver a deal.
Mr Barnier’s remit is to nail down exit terms, including on financial dues and the status of EU migrants, before discussing a trade deal. “It will take us several months to draw out the conditions of an orderly withdrawal . . . so let’s not waste time,” he said.
Mr Barnier declined to comment on the turmoil in UK politics but made clear that it was the UK that would suffer should progress be delayed. At one point he brandished a mug with the slogan “keep calm and negotiate”, joking that he may need to fill it with beer. “There won’t be any drama from my side,” he said.
Repeatedly stating that agreement on the principles of divorce were a “necessary crossing point”, Mr Barnier said he was then open to discussing all options on future relations — even if it differs from Theresa May’s original vision of leaving the customs union and single market.
“I don’t know what hard Brexit or soft Brexit means. I read yesterday ‘Open Brexit’ too! Brexit is withdrawal from the EU — it’s the UK’s decision. We’re implementing it,” he said.
“I’ll say it clearly: there’s no spirit of revenge, no punishment, no naivety either. And there is truth. Truth on what Brexit means, what leaving the EU signifies by its consequences. The citizens have the right to know this truth.” In Britain, he added, “lots of people underestimated these consequences. Lots of people.”
Lining Mr Barnier’s office corridor is a row of flags of EU member states, with one glaring exception. His mandate is drawn from the EU27, and his mission is to ensure that the negotiation “does not occupy the whole of the EU agenda”.
This is not against the UK, he insists. But for Mr Barnier this is clearly an exercise in damage limitation, allowing EU leaders “to take care of everything else”, from defence integration to the eurozone. And he is in a hurry to make progress and start talks: “It could be tomorrow morning . . . it could be next week, it could be the 19th, as I proposed.”
So far Britain’s vote to leave has galvanised the 27, and there are few signs of division. But diplomats expect that to be shortlived once compromises need to be broached.
“Unity doesn’t fall from the sky. You must build it every day,” Mr Barnier said. “We’ve built it together for six months; it wasn’t easy. My mission will be to preserve it. I know it will be challenged.”
Mr Barnier spoke to Olly Robbins, the UK prime minister’s “sherpa”, on Monday about the organisation of formal talks, which could start as early as this week.
The EU has sent its formal position papers to London on citizen rights and a financial settlement, which is estimated to run to up to €100bn in gross terms.
Brussels is waiting for a substantive UK response. Asked about London’s promise to make a “generous offer” to 3m EU migrants, Mr Barnier seems unimpressed: “I really don’t know what ‘generous’ means.”
The EU’s concern is that giving EU migrants UK permanent residence would still see them lose rights, from family reunion to access to benefits. “I don’t know if it is generous to preserve the rights of people and families who are worried,” he said. “I want to find a solution that is humanely and legally fair.”
Mr Barnier wants discussions wrapped up by November 2018 at the latest so there is time to ratify the agreements in national and EU parliaments. He dismisses the idea of an extension of the March 2019 exit date.
“If we work seriously, I see neither the usefulness nor the interest of pushing back this date. Why? Because every extra delay is a source . . . of instability that we don’t need, which the economy doesn’t need, which employment doesn’t need.”
Asked whether wasting time on the divorce terms could endanger the agreement on a future relationship, Mr Barnier replied: “That is what we call sequencing.
“But this sequencing — it’s non-negotiable for us — was not created, wanted, in order to create problems. It was designed in order to resolve problems,” he added, stressing that the divorce was complex and “we need trust to build a future relationship”.
For all the tough talk on the EU side, Mr Barnier is alive to the need for compromise to reach a fair deal, especially on legacy issues.
He is quick to point out that “sufficient progress” on the withdrawal will cover “the principles” of a deal on citizens and money, rather than the full details.
The EU is open to all models of future relations. “Every one of these options and models has its own balance, in terms of rights and obligations,” he said. “The UK government knows the rules, the conditions for each one of its options. We’re preparing for all options — including that of a ‘no deal’.”
When Mr Barnier says that all options are on the table, he means with conditions. The EU is particularly sensitive to the terms for single-market participation, from European court oversight to free movement of labour. He shows little interest in entertaining bespoke single-market models championed by some supporters of a soft Brexit.
“It’s not a supermarket — it’s a community, a space of economic and social and human life,” he said. “Thus the four freedoms go together. And we will not compromise on the autonomy of decisions of the EU.” That autonomy means Britain would have “no influence nor veto right” on EU rulemaking.
For those reasons, Mrs May’s preferred option before the election was to seek a free-trade arrangement, at more arm’s length from the single market. Mr Barnier said it posed a unique challenge since it must handle divergence, rather than the convergence envisaged in most trade deals.
“What becomes of this divergence? Is it controlled, inspected, checked — and by who? Or does it become a tool of regulatory competition, with consequences on social, environmental, consumer rights? On the ‘level playing field’, of state aid, of competition, of tax? Those are questions that I’m asked,” he said.
Alex Barker and Paul McClean