UK must make up its mind on Brexit, says EU adviser
Catherine Day says union waiting to see where Britain is willing to compromise
Catherine Day (centre), special adviser to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, with Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley and Fianna Fáil councillor Kate Feeney at a meeting of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, at the European Foundation in Loughlinstown, Co Dublin. Photograph: Simon Carswell
Speaking to reporters on the fringes of a conference in Dublin, Catherine Day said the debate around Brexit had been at “a very ideological level” so far and that the most difficult thing now was for the UK “to make up its mind” on areas where it is willing to compromise and where its priorities lie.
Ms Day, who is special adviser to Jean-Claude Juncker, expects the EU and the UK to “get down to the nitty gritty” around arrangements on trade and for citizens in each other’s countries when formal negotiations start on Monday. “What everyone is waiting for is for the UK to say what its priorities are and where it is willing to compromise,” she told reporters at a meeting of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, the third largest political group in the European Parliament.
“The EU, I think, is very open to all kinds of different arrangements but there is a price for every arrangement so if you want to be in the single market, you have to accept free movement [of goods and people]. If you are in the customs union, you can’t negotiate your own trade deals and so on.”
The UK’s Brexit secretary David Davis and EU negotiator Michel Barnier will begin negotiations on Monday after prime minister Theresa May invoked article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which starts the clock on the UK’s departure from the EU ahead of a departure deadline of March 2019.
Ms Day, a former secretary-general of the European Commission, said that the EU would be willing to extend the two-year timeframe if it meant avoiding a messy Brexit. “The thing we all want to avoid is something that’s not organised,” she said.
EU rules permit the two-year deadline to be extended if there is unanimous agreement but, she said, it comes down to what the UK wants and whether it makes sense to negotiate for a further six months or a year to agree an easy transition to a new arrangement.
“It is certainly politically desirable and provided for in the texts,” she said. Ms Day expects the start of negotiations on Monday to be “an opening” and focused on “procedure rather than substance” and “setting out the ground rules”.
The commission is awaiting the UK’s response to papers outlining reciprocal rights for EU nationals in Britain and Britons living in the EU, and the financial settlement for Britain leaving the bloc. She said that she was not expecting a walkout in the dispute over the size of any “divorce” bill. “Not immediately,” she said, with a smile.
Asked whether she was hopeful that Brexit may not happen, Ms Day said: “You will have to plan for the worst, which is Brexit happening, and that’s what is happening.” The UK leaving the EU was “the most likely outcome,” she added.
“Personally as somebody would have liked to see the UK staying in the EU I would always keep the hope alive and I think it’s positive that European leaders are saying that it is still an option if the UK has a change of heart but as of now, I don’t see it,” she said.
Ms Day described as “very encouraging” the desire by the new French president Emmanuel Macron to reform the EU and to put a renewed Franco-German alliance at the heart of the union.
“It is a new generation taking ownership of its European Union. I think that is very positive. I do see continental Europe moving on with integration for external reasons as well as internal reasons,” she said.
“That is part of the challenge for Ireland now is to work out what kind of new EU do we want and how we do help to shape it.”